Special-operations soldiers say that if the command in Afghanistan had listened to them four years ago, there would have been no need this month for a U.S. air strike that killed senior Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Osmani.
He already would have been locked up.
As reported in 2002 by The Washington Times, an Army Green Beret "A Team" said it captured Osmani in a village near Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace.
The U.S. prison at the Bagram military base north of Kabul later released Osmani, the Special Forces soldiers said. They suspect Osmani convinced his captors that he was not a Taliban leader but a poor villager. The soldiers said they heard later that he crossed into Pakistan and reorganized his forces.
A military spokesman told The Times, "If we had captured Osmani, we would still have him."
Osmani was killed earlier this month. The Combined Forces Command in Kabul said that on Dec. 19 Osmani was identified, based on intelligence reports, as riding in a vehicle near the Pakistan border in a deserted area. An air strike killed him and two unidentified companions.
"Osmani was in the top ring of the Taliban leadership, and he was also a close associate of Osama bin Laden and [anti-U.S. warlord] Gulbuddin Hekmatyr," said Col. Tom Collins, a command spokesman. "His death is a major achievement in the fight against extremists and their terrorist networks."
Osmani had helped lead a Taliban resurgence this year that saw the radical Islamic movement recapture towns in southern Afghanistan, commit a string of atrocities and ramp up ambushes of NATO troops.
The command said Osmani ran the Taliban's military operations in Kandahar and other southern towns. His leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, remains at large.
Soldiers on the A Team in 2002 said Osmani should never have had the second chance to reorganize the Taliban.
"We may never find out what really happened to him and if he was really let go by mistake, or something else, but it would have saved many, many lives, Afghan and American, if Osmani had been locked up or killed in '02," said a Special Forces soldier who was in Afghanistan at the time.
The soldiers told The Times that in July 2002 they received intelligence from locals that Osmani was staying in a compound in the village of Sangin. The soldiers said that U.S. military operations had slowed by then and that some ex-Taliban felt reasonably secure living in small villages.
While his compound was under surveillance, a man matching Osmani's description emerged to attend morning prayers, the soldiers said. The man was stopped at gunpoint and searched. He had an old Taliban ID card with the name "Osmani," they said, and scars on his chest that matched an intelligence profile.
The soldiers said they took the man by truck to Kandahar, from where he was flown to the prison in Bagram. Weeks later, they said, they heard he had been released.
A Defense Intelligence Agency spokesman said, "The DIA has no knowledge that Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Osmani was ever in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. Given Osmani's high profile and our interest in detaining him, misidentification by experienced personnel is unlikely."