US Takes Some Blame in Deadly Pakistan Friendly Fire Incident

PHOTO: Pakistani students shout slogans during a protest outside the US consulate in Peshawar, Nov. 30, 2011, against the cross-border NATO air strike on Pakistani troops.
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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.

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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.

Pakistani Account Differs From U.S. Account

The Pakistani military declined the American military's invitation to participate in the investigation, so the report only reflected information provided by the U.S. and Afghanistan military officials. But Clark admitted he did not take into account any of the multiple briefings that Pakistani military officials gave to the media in both Islamabad and Washington. He did not even know, for example, that the second Pakistani outpost hit by NATO helicopters was named Boulder.

The Pakistani military's account differs fundamentally.

Before the attack began, according to the Pakistani military accounts, a U.S. soldier at a Border Coordination Center handed over coordinates to his Pakistani colleagues from which he said the U.S./Afghan team was taking fire. Those coordinates were ten miles north of Volcano, according to the Pakistani military. Just as the Pakistani officers were reviewing the coordinates, the attack began. Moments later, a NATO officer "apologized for sending incorrect coordinates and confirmed that NATO helicopters had actually attacked" Volcano, according to a written account provided to Congress by Pakistan's lobbying firm in Washington, Locke Lord Strategies.

During the attack, according to the Pakistani account, soldiers from a nearby base Boulder fired illuminating rounds as a way to signal to the NATO helicopters – not the precise mortar and artillery that the U.S. claims. The NATO helicopters then begun to attack Boulder.

"Any allegation that the NATO troops thought that they were firing on insurgents when they attacked the Volcano and Boulder observation posts is baseless," reads the Pakistani document. "NATO was aware that the bases were there when they fired on them. NATO troops are also well aware that terrorists seeking refuge in mountainous areas install themselves in ravines and deep valleys which provide cover from aerial attacks -- not in plain sight on the top of a mountain."

In an interview, a senior Pakistani military official expanded, saying that the attack stopped after the Pakistani and American military established communication. But then the helicopters returned to the area and once again shot at the bases. In the days after the attack, the Pakistani army's head of military operations cited that fact as evidence the attack had "deliberately" targeted Pakistani troops.

"I doubt anything can be done… in Afghanistan."

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The attack came just as the U.S.' rocky relations with Pakistan were slowly getting back on track. In November, senior U.S. military officials described how the two militaries were beginning to speak to each other for the first time since before a particularly bad round of accusations in September.

The trust had dwindled to nearly nothing. Attacks from Pakistan on U.S. troops were up four times compared to the previous year, and military officials gave interviews in which they openly said militant safehavens inside Pakistan were imperiling the war effort.

But by November, senior military officials said the Pakistani military was at least answering U.S. calls when special operations forces units took fire from the Pakistani side of the border. Sometimes the Pakistani officers would give authorization to the U.S. to shoot, according to a U.S. military official.

But after the incident, anger swept through Pakistan's government and military. A weak civilian government already seen by many in Pakistan as too close to the U.S. went out of its way to mourn the dead. The military – which came under criticism for not firing back -- held a public funeral attended by the powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. Kayani then told Pakistani soldiers on the border they were free to open fire – without receiving prior permission -- next time they were attacked.

The government then closed the supply route over which approximately one third of all NATO supplies arrive in Afghanistan. And privately, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials, Pakistan began to bring up long-term demands that it wanted met: that the U.S. share more information about drone targets, pay more money to use the supply line, and reveal more details about CIA operations inside Pakistan.

More than anything, the senior Pakistani military official said, Pakistan planned to ask the U.S. to formalize post-9/11 arrangements over drones and over-flight approval that had originally been made informally.

"Now, everything should be formalized, and everything should act within the parameters we set," the official said, drawing a virtual box with his fingers.

But Pakistani officials presented those demands as a starting point – only after the U.S. apologized. Now that the U.S. has refused to do that, it's not clear how far the Pakistanis will go in cutting off U.S. ties.

The senior Pakistani military official, however, delivered a warning before the report was released. He said that if the U.S. and Pakistan failed to redraw their bilateral agreements, then the U.S. would not receive the help it is asking for to draw down the war in Afghanistan.

"If our goals are not aligned," he said, "I doubt anything can be done… in Afghanistan."

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