The US coalition said on Saturday that an overnight raid killed 15 Taliban militants but village elders who quickly traveled to speak with government officials said the dead were all civilians.
A detailed US statement said multiple teams of militants fired on the coalition forces during a raid in the eastern province of Laghman, including a woman the US said was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.
"We know the people who were killed were shooting at us," said Col Greg Julian, the top US spokesman in Afghanistan. "The people who were killed on Saturday were running around, maneuvering against our forces, and we killed them."
But Hamididan Abdul Rahmzai, the head of the provincial council in Laghman, said village elders arrived at his office hours after the early morning operation to complain that the 15 killed were innocent civilians.
During a call from an Associated Press reporter, Rahmzai relayed questions to the village elders directly, who angrily shouted that they would swear on the Quran, the Muslim holy book, that all those killed were civilians. The elders claimed that women and children were among the dead.
The villagers told Rahmzai that they are shepherds and have no ties to militants.
Evaluating competing claims from the US or NATO militaries and Afghan officials or villagers is extremely difficult. Journalists and human rights monitors usually cannot reach the site of a raid because the territory is too dangerous.
Afghan villagers have been known to exaggerate civilian death claims in order to receive more compensation from the US military, and officials have said that insurgents sometimes force villagers to make false death claims.
But the US military has also been known to not fully acknowledge when it killed civilians.
After a battle in August in the village of Azizabad, the US military at first said no civilians were killed. A day later it said about five died, and eventually a more thorough US investigation found 33 civilians were killed. The Afghan government and the UN said 90 civilians were killed.
Civilian deaths is a hugely sensitive topic between the Afghan government and the US and NATO. President Hamid Karzai last week told parliament that the US and NATO have not heeded his calls to stop airstrikes in civilian areas, and he again deplored civilian deaths caused by international militaries.
The Afghan government recently sent NATO headquarters a draft agreement that would give Afghanistan more control over future NATO deployments in the country and would prohibit NATO troops from conducting searches of Afghan homes.