KABUL, Afghanistan — When the killing ended in northeast Helmand province on Sunday, the only thing Afghan officials knew for certain was that the beheaded bodies of 15 men and two women lay in the desert, in Taliban territory, after a startling spasm of brutality. The question now dogging them is why.
Government officials scrambled for more than a day to explain the carnage. Hajji Naimatullah Khan, governor of the Musa Qala district, initially reported that the Taliban had executed the 17 for attending a risque party. But in a telephone interview he later revised his account, saying witnesses believed the men had been identified as informers and dragged away from villages in his district. The two women, he added, had pleaded for the men's lives, but this angered the Taliban, who killed them, too.
"The Taliban learned that these are the people who had links with government," Khan said. "They were detained in their homes and taken away."
Helmand province was the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's surge when he ordered 33,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to help the military with a counterinsurgency plan. That plan hoped to turn the tide in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar and establish the governmental institutions that would allow the Afghan government to take control of the Taliban heartland.
Two years later, however, Helmand is still so lawless that Afghan government officials couldn't even go to the Taliban-controlled town where the beheadings were reported.
Musa Qala and the nearby district of Kajaki, where the bodies were reported found, are both longtime Taliban strongholds and scenes of heavy fighting with U.S. and British troops over the years. The lasting Taliban presence has long marginalized government officials there, perhaps explaining the array of explanations for the beheadings.
The Helmand governor's office offered differing theories as well. It first released a statement suggesting that two Taliban commanders had gotten into a fight over the two women that spiraled into a wider gunbattle.
Then governor's spokesman Daud Ahmadi speculated that the victims might have been suspected of planning an anti-Taliban uprising. But that was only a hopeful hypothesis, he admitted.
Spokesmen for the Taliban, who are quick to text local journalists with news of their actions, were either silent or denied knowing about the killings.
Though authoritative details were hard to come by, the attack drew many condemnations.
President Hamid Karzai described the beheadings as a combination of mass murder, apostasy and hooliganism. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul called the killings a "shameful act." And Gen. John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO troops here, called the killers "cowards" and predicted the attack might help persuade villagers to rise up.
Some Afghans and international observers believe that the Taliban will try to reimpose strict rule as international forces withdraw.
Under the Taliban, all music and film were banned as un-Islamic, and women were barred from leaving their homes without a male relative as an escort.
String of insider attacks continues
A surge of insider attacks against U.S. troops continued Monday, when an Afghan National Army soldier gunned down two Americans after a dispute in Laghman province, a restive and rugged part of eastern Afghanistan that no longer has much U.S. presence, Afghan officials said.
"A verbal argument erupted, and fire was exchanged," said Noor Rahman, a Laghman police official.
That brought the U.S. death toll in such violence to 12 in the past three weeks, a continuing crisis shaking trust between U.S. military personnel and the Afghan forces they are training and working beside until the 2014 NATO military withdrawal.
One-third of all U.S. fatalities in August have now come at the hands of Afghan soldiers, policemen or other Afghans working with U.S. forces. Forty-two U.S. and NATO soldiers have been killed in insider attacks so far this year.
Though Afghan officials identified the victims in Laghman as U.S. soldiers, the American-led international military command would not confirm their nationalities.
A Western official said the attack began when a NATO convoy hit a roadside bomb. The blast did not injure anyone, but it damaged a vehicle, forcing the convoy to stop. Then a separate Afghan patrol crossed paths with the broken-down convoy, the official said, and that was when the shooting happened. The gunman was killed in a firefight.
For a while Monday it also appeared that an attack in which Afghan soldiers killed their colleagues had occurred in Helmand in the Washir district, near Nimroz and Farah provinces.
There, Taliban attackers ambushed and killed 10 Afghan National Army soldiers in an hourlong firefight that also left four soldiers wounded and 11 Taliban fighters dead.
Initially, the Helmand governor's office said insurgents had infiltrated the Afghan ranks and plotted to help the attack. But the office later revised its account, saying five soldiers had fled during the firefight — cowards, a spokesman suggested, but not infiltrators — and that they were being investigated.
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar urged his commanders earlier this month to "employ tactics that do not cause harm to the life and property of the common countrymen." The insurgents' leader has issued such edicts before, perhaps trying to soften the extremist movement's image, but the order appears to have been widely ignored.
A U.N. report last month said 1,145 civilians were killed and 1,954 others were injured in the first half of the year, 80 percent of them by militants.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.