U.S. Concedes Error, but Says Pakistan Fired First at Border

Reply Thu 22 Dec, 2011 11:01 am
December 22, 2011
U.S. Concedes Error, but Says Pakistan Fired First at Border

KABUL, Afghanistan — Mistakes by both American and Pakistani forces led to airstrikes against Pakistani posts on the Afghanistan border that killed 26 Pakistani Army soldiers last month, according to a Pentagon investigation that for the first time acknowledged some American responsibility for the clash, which plunged the already frayed relationship between the United States and Pakistan to a new low. But a crucial finding — that the Pakistanis fired first — was likely to further anger Pakistan.

American officials said Thursday that the investigation, which has not yet been released, had concluded the airstrikes were an act of self-defense ultimately justified because Pakistani soldiers opened fire on a joint team of Afghan and American special operations forces operating along the often poorly demarcated frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“U.S. forces, given what information they had available to them at the time, acted in self-defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon,” the Department of Defense said in a statement Thursday. The American investigator “also found that there was no intentional effort to target persons or places known to be part of the Pakistani military.”

Pakistan has insisted its forces did nothing wrong, and that they certainly did not fire the first shots. Rather, senior Pakistani military and civilian officials have openly accused the United States of knowingly striking the border posts. Officials in Pakistan have said they will accept nothing short of a complete apology from President Obama.

The Defense Department statement did include an apology, though it did not appear to go as far as Pakistani officials have demanded. “For the loss of life — and for the lack of proper coordination between U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to those losses — we express our deepest regret,” it said. “We further express sincere condolences to the Pakistani people, to the Pakistani government, and most importantly to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who were killed or wounded.”

American officials had not planned to release any results of the investigation by the United States Central Command this week and were still redacting parts of the report and determining what details could be publicized and what should remain classified, said a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be identified because the full report remains classified. But with word spreading in Washington about the report’s main findings, the Defense Department put out its statement early Thursday as American officials in Islamabad, Washington and Kabul scrambled to brief their Pakistani counterparts and try to limit the fallout before news of the findings became public.

“The message we’re trying to convey tonight is that there were some pretty serious breakdowns all around,” said an American official in the region on Thursday, a few hours before the statement was released. “How does Pakistan react? We hope we can start moving forward.”

Based on the Defense Department’s statement and the accounts of American and Western officials who have seen the results of the investigation, the report lays out Washington’s counternarrative to the Pakistani accusations that their forces were intentionally and repeatedly targeted over the course of two hours after midnight on Nov. 26. Some elements of the report confirm what Pakistani officials have been saying about the airstrikes, but others contradict the Pakistani account, said officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been released.

The conclusion is that both sides erred. “Inadequate coordination by U.S. and Pakistani military officers operating through the border coordination center — including our reliance on incorrect mapping information shared with the Pakistani liaison officer — resulted in a misunderstanding about the true location of Pakistani military units,” the Defense Department statement said.

“This, coupled with other gaps in information about the activities and placement of units from both sides, contributed to the tragic result,” it said without detailing what actually took place in the small hours of Nov. 26.

But according to the American and Western officials familiar with the report, it says that the joint Afghan-American patrol, which was operating in a remote and mountainous area between the Afghan province of Kunar and the Pakistani tribal area of Mohmand, came under machine gun and mortar fire from at least one of the Pakistani border posts around midnight on Nov. 26. The American official said the Afghan and American special operations forces, about 150 of whom were on the mission, believed they were being attacked by militants, at least initially, and called for air support.

Why the Pakistanis were firing remains unclear, the American official said. But in the days after the airstrikes, another American official in Washington provided part of an explanation: the Pakistanis apparently had intelligence that Taliban militants were planning to attack the border posts and the Pakistani soldiers may have mistaken the Afghan and American troopers for them.

The United States military report lends credence to that theory: the officials said it finds that NATO did not inform Pakistan that the operation on the border was taking place, and thus the Pakistani soldiers would not have known to expect allied forces near their posts. NATO and Pakistani forces are supposed to inform each other about operations on the border precisely to avoid the kind of mistake that took place on Nov. 26.

The second American mistake came when the airstrikes were called in, according to the report. The Americans apparently gave the Pakistani Army the wrong coordinates that were to be struck by Apache attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship, the officials said. One said the coordinates were off by nine miles.

It was not immediately clear whether the Pakistanis cleared the strikes after getting the wrong coordinates. They have said they did not; regardless, the strikes began before their officers based at NATO coordination posts in Afghanistan had a chance to check with superiors in Pakistan, according to the Pakistani account of what took place.

But, as the report shows, even if Pakistan did clear the strikes, the posts still probably would have been hit because the Pakistanis had been given the wrong coordinates.

Another safeguard also failed, according to the report: Pakistan never told NATO that it had established the border posts, which had been up for about three months, said a Western official in Kabul. Both sides are supposed to inform each other when setting up new positions along the border, another measure intended to avoid strikes against each other.

Twenty four Pakistani soldiers were killed in the strikes, and another two subsequently died of their wounds, Pakistani officials have said.

Whether any American service members will be disciplined in connection with the episode has not been decided, the American and Western officials said.

NATO’s Afghanistan headquarters and the American Embassy in Kabul declined to comment on the investigation, referring queries to the Defense Department and State Department in Washington. Pakistani officials did not offer any immediate reaction.

But given the indignant Pakistani response to the raid — “They killed our sons and we can never forgive this,” said one senior Pakistani defense official in a recent interview, speaking anonymously because he still works with Americans — Washington was bracing for another round of recrimination, said the American and Western officials.

A ban on the shipment of NATO supplies through Pakistan, put in place after the strike, is expected to remain for some time, the officials said. NATO officials have said the blockade is not affecting operations because less than 30 percent of supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan are currently shipped through Pakistan.

More damaging is the faltering military and counterterrorism cooperation between Washington and Islamabad after a year of crises that began with the shooting of two Pakistanis by a Central Intelligence Agency contractor in the city of Lahore. The two sides no longer conduct joint operations along the border, which they had started doing a few years ago, and intelligence sharing on a range of threats from Al Qaeda to lesser known Islamist militant groups has also fallen off, the American and Western officials said.

The Defense Department statement tried to strike a more positive note. “Our focus now is to learn from these mistakes and take whatever corrective measures are required to ensure an incident like this is not repeated,” it said. “We cannot operate effectively on the border — or in other parts of our relationship — without addressing the fundamental trust still lacking between us. We earnestly hope the Pakistani military will join us in bridging that gap.”
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