A U.S. military investigation released today accepted some blame for the deadliest friendly-fire incident of the war in Afghanistan, but ultimately concluded the airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers were justified -- findings expected to infuriate an already angry Pakistani public and military.
The highly-anticipated U.S. investigation admitted that one of its soldiers used an incorrect map and that the U.S. communication with Pakistani officers that November night wasn't as clear as it could have been. Defense Department and NATO statements offered "our deepest regret" and "condolences" though not a direct apology for the incident -- as Pakistan has repeatedly demanded.
U.S. military officials also said for the first time that the Pakistani army had shot at U.S. and Afghan troops with "direct and heavy machine gun fire" and "accurate mortar fire."
The Pakistani military has not yet been provided with a full copy of the report, but a spokesman for the Pakistan Army texted ABC News with an initial response contesting the results, which were discussed in an audio briefing at the Pentagon. "Pak army does not agree with the findings of the US/NATO inquiry as being reported in the media," said the spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. "The inquiry report is short on facts. Detailed response will be given as and when the formal report is received."
A Pakistani official close to the government went much further, saying Pakistan considered the report "outright fabrication." Before the release, Pakistani military and government officials all made clear that the anger in Pakistan with the U.S. over the incident was so high, anything short of a formal apology could permanently imperil the NATO supply line and bilateral cooperation on intelligence and the future of Afghanistan.
According to the U.S. investigation, the friendly fire incident unfolded late on the night of November 25, when a team of 120 U.S. and Afghan ground forces was moving through rugged terrain towards an Afghan village just one kilometer from the border with Pakistan. The ground force came under attack from a ridgeline inside Pakistan and requested a "show of force" from an F-15 fighter jet and an AC-130 gunship, the U.S. said today. Both planes dropped flares that illuminated the rugged valley below, but the firing continued.
U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, who led the investigation, said the flares should have been a strong indicator to the Pakistani forces that were not firing at insurgents, but American forces.
The ground commander initially received word from headquarters that there were no Pakistani military forces in the area, and he called in airstrikes on the ridgeline. That was the first and primary mistake that led to the outposts being targeted.
Clark cited three failures in communication between coalition and Pakistani military officials sitting next to each other in a Border Coordination Center, or BCC, that could have prevented some of the friendly fire that night. The initial determination provided to the U.S. ground force, he said, had caveats that were misheard. Special operations headquarters initially said, "we are checking with the BCC, but we are tracking no PAKMIL in the area." That was apparently heard as "No PAKMIL in the area." Eventually that message was repeated to the regional headquarters, which "then assumed that the lower echelon had, in fact, validated and confirmed there was no PAKMIL in the area," Clark said.
He also said that the outposts -- which were only three months old -- did not appear on any U.S. map, and that one of the computer maps used by a U.S. military official in the Border Coordination Center was incorrectly configured.
Also hampering communication was a lack of trust. Initially, the U.S. officer in the Border Coordination Center did not share the exact location of the U.S. unit -- he was told to be vague -- because of past experiences that when the U.S. has been specific, "some of their operations have been compromised," Clark said.