During his intensive initial round of media interviews as commander in Afghanistan in August 2010, Gen. David Petraeus released figures to the news media that claimed spectacular success for raids by Special Operations Forces: in a 90-day period from May through July, SOF units had captured 1,355 rank-and-file Taliban, killed another 1,031, and killed or captured 365 middle- or high-ranking Taliban.
The claims of huge numbers of Taliban captured and killed continued through the rest of 2010. In December, Petraeus's command said a total of 4,100 Taliban rank and file had been captured in the previous six months and 2,000 had been killed.
Those figures were critical to creating a new media narrative hailing the success of SOF operations as reversing what had been a losing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
But it turns out that more than 80 percent of those called captured Taliban fighters were released within days of having been picked up, because they were found to have been innocent civilians, according to official U.S. military data.
Even more were later released from the main U.S. detention facility at Bagram airbase called the Detention Facility in Parwan after having their files reviewed by a panel of military officers.
The timing of Petraeus's claim of Taliban fighters captured or killed, moreover, indicates that he knew that four out of five of those he was claiming as "captured Taliban rank and file" were not Taliban fighters at all.
Checking on the claims of the number of Taliban commanders and rank and file killed is impossible, but the claims of Taliban captured could be checked against official data on admission of detainees added to Parwan.
An Afghan detained by U.S. or NATO forces can only be held in a Forward Operating Base for a maximum of 14 days before a decision must be made about whether to release the individual or send him to Parwan for longer-term detention.
IPS has now obtained an unclassified graph by Task Force 435, the military command responsible for detainee affairs, on Parwan's monthly intake and release totals for 2010, which shows that only 270 detainees were admitted to that facility during the 90-day period from May through July 2010.
That figure also includes alleged Taliban commanders who were sent to Parwan and whom Petraeus counted separately from the rank and file figure. Thus, more than four out of every five Afghans said to have been Taliban fighters captured during that period had been released within two weeks as innocent civilians.
When Petraeus decided in mid-August to release the figure of 1,355 Taliban rank and file allegedly captured during the 90-day period, he already knew that 80 percent or more of that total had already been released.
Major Sunset R. Belinsky, the ISAF press officer for SOF operations, conceded to IPS last September that the 1,355 figure applied only to "initial detentions."
Task Force 435 commander Adm. Robert Harward confirmed in a press briefing for journalists Nov. 30, 2010, that 80 percent of the Afghans detained by the U.S. military during the entire year to that point had been released within two weeks.
"This year, in this battle space, approximately 5,500 individuals have been detained," Harward said, adding the crucial fact that "about 1,100 have come to the detention facility in Parwan."
Harward did not explain the discrepancy between the two figures, however, and no journalist attending the Pentagon briefing asked for such an explanation.
Petraeus continued to exploit media ignorance of the discrepancy between the number of Taliban rank and file said to have been "captured" and the number actually sent to the FDIP.