The U.S. admitted Thursday it made "mistakes" in the airstrike that mistakenly killed two dozen Pakistani troops in late November, but its finding that U.S. forces acted in "self defense and with appropriate force" is unlikely to assuage Islamabad's seething anger as ties between the tenuous allies continue to fray.
Air Force Brigadier General Stephen Clark, who led the military’s investigation, on Thursday outlined a complex sequence of events that took place during the raid, peppered with embarrassing miscommunications both within the U.S. military and with Pakistan, along with technical failures.
Clark, of Air Force Special Operations Command, said U.S. and Afghan troops took heavy machine-gun fire from a ridge inside Pakistan while conducting a night raid in a nearby Afghan village. The U.S. commander on the ground was incorrectly told there were no Pakistani forces in the area, Clark said, paving the way for a retaliatory strike on what was believed to be insurgent location.
The original message intended to be relayed was that Regional Command East was "checking" on locations of Pakistani forces but none had been traced at that point-- but Clark said lower headquarters simply heard: “No [Pakistani military] in the area" and didn't corroborate the information.
The mistake was compounded when officials shared incorrect mapping information with the border-coordination center, in part due to improper computer settings. Clark also described an “overarching lack of trust” between the Pakistani and U.S. militaries in providing specific information about their locations and military operations in the border area. By the time the coalition could identify there were Pakistani military in the area, more than an hour had passed.
This “series of miscommunications,” as Clark called it, might prove embarrassing for the U.S. military and could result in disciplinary action for those involved. But the crux of the investigation relayed in a Defense Department statement, that U.S. forces “acted in self defense and with appropriate force” after taking fire and had no intention to target Pakistani military troops, is likely to stoke Pakistan's anger over the strike.
Pakistan insists its troops did not fire first and has accused the U.S. of deliberately targeting its border posts. Islamabad, after demanding the U.S. vacate a key drone base and closing off key shipping routes to Afghanistan, has demanded a full apology from President Obama. Thus far, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have offered their “deepest condolences” for the loss of life in a joint statement after the strike-- sentiments echoed by the Pentagon even as the investigation's findings were publicly disclosed.
The U.S. shared the findings of the investigation with the Pakistani and Afghan governments. “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,” the DOD statement said. “The chain of command will consider any issues of accountability. More critically, we must work to improve the level of trust between our two countries. We cannot operate effectively on the border -- or in other parts of our relationship -- without addressing the fundamental trust still lacking between us.”
Tensions with Pakistan have been boiling for months, since the covert U.S. raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden in a garrison town not far from the capital. Islamabad has since expelled hundreds of U.S. trainers from the country in the fallout after the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, leading Washington to hold off on supplying some counterinsurgency funds without personnel to monitor and distribute it.