Women supporters of Pakistani religious group Jamaat-e-Islami rally… (Shakil Adil, Associated…)
Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan —
Pakistan's military on Friday rejected the findings of a Pentagon inquiry that concluded that Pakistan and the United States shared blame for an American-led coalition attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border, severely straining relations between Washington and Islamabad.
In a brief response to the Pentagon report, the Pakistani military called it "short on facts" and questioned its conclusions. Pakistan said it would provide a more detailed reply to the report. Pakistani military officials could not be reached for comment Friday.
Nonetheless, it appeared unlikely that the U.S. investigation of the Nov. 26 incident would resolve the latest in a series of major crises plaguing the beleaguered Washington-Islamabad alliance. Infuriated by the attack, Pakistan shut down border crossings used by convoys delivering supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and ordered the United States to vacate an air base in southern Pakistan believed to have been used by the CIA to launch drone attacks.
Pakistani leaders say they want a halt to U.S. drone strikes against militants in the country's tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
The American report, released Thursday, found that errors made by the U.S. played a role in the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers. Mistakes included the use of incorrect mapping information that led to confusion about the location of Pakistani troops in the area where the fighting occurred.
But the investigation also determined that the incident was triggered by Pakistani soldiers who began firing at U.S. special operations troops carrying out a mission on the Afghan side of the border, an assertion that Pakistan strongly denies.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, who led the investigation, said the 120-member U.S. contingent was making its way up rugged terrain toward the Afghan village of Nawa when it was hit by heavy machine-gun fire and mortar shelling from a ridgeline on the Pakistani side of the border. The two makeshift border posts where the 24 Pakistani soldiers were stationed were on that ridgeline.
When the team's commander called his headquarters to ask whether any Pakistani soldiers were in the area, he was mistakenly told that there were none. The commander then ordered an AC-130 gunship to fire at the ridgeline. Firing from the ridgeline toward the U.S. ground troops continued, prompting the AC-130 gunship as well as two Apache helicopters to fire back, Clark said.
About midnight, a Pakistani liaison officer stationed in Nawa called a U.S. regional command post to say Pakistani forces were being fired upon by U.S. aircraft. When officers at the command post asked for the location of the Pakistani troops under fire, the Pakistani officer replied, "Well, you know where it is because you are shooting at them," Clark said.
U.S.-led coalition officers at a border coordination center in Nawa then gave the Pakistani military a general location of the fighting, but it was the wrong location, more than eight miles from the scene of the firing. The Pakistani liaison officer relayed the incorrect information to his commanders, who then responded that there were no Pakistani soldiers situated there.
The firing stopped sometime around midnight but resumed 40 minutes later, Clark said, when heavy machine-gun fire from another point along the ridgeline was directed at the U.S. ground troops below. The U.S. aircraft then attacked that location until about 1 a.m., when American commanders confirmed that there were indeed Pakistani soldiers situated along the ridgeline.
The Pakistani military refused to participate in the investigation, convinced that the U.S. would whitewash what had happened. At a briefing last month in Pakistan, military leaders laid out their version, saying U.S. helicopters fired on the soldiers shortly after midnight, departed and then returned to attack once more despite a call by Pakistani commanders to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that the checkpoints under fire belonged to the Pakistani army. Pakistani military commanders called the U.S. attack deliberate and unprovoked.
Pakistani generals at the briefing said soldiers at the border posts fired only in self-defense, and only at the U.S. aircraft attacking their positions. According to the Pentagon's findings, firing from the soldiers' positions along the ridgeline was directed only at U.S. special operations troops on the Afghan side of the border, never at the aircraft.