(ISLAMABAD) — A United States military investigation has accepted some blame for the deadliest friendly-fire incident of the Afghan war, but ultimately concluded the airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last month were justified — findings expected to infuriate an already angry Pakistani public and military.
The highly anticipated results released Thursday admit the U.S. provided “incorrect mapping information” that led to a, “misunderstanding about the true location of Pakistani military units.” But a senior U.S. official says there will be no apology for an attack that sparked massive protests across Pakistan and led Pakistan’s government to cut off NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military declined to comment until it has the time to review the official report. But in interviews with Pakistani military and government officials before the release, they made clear that the anger in Pakistan with the U.S. over the incident was so high, that anything short of a formal apology could permanently imperil the NATO supply line, bilateral cooperation on intelligence and the future of Afghanistan.
The U.S. investigation found that in the early hours of Nov. 26, an American special operation forces team and their Afghan counterparts were fired upon from inside Pakistan, according to defense officials. They believed that militants had targeted them, and called in air support.
“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,” according to a Pentagon statement.
Pakistan never told NATO that it had set up the two small outposts that were attacked, according to the U.S. account, and therefore the air support felt free to shoot.
“There were mistakes made by both sides,” a defense official told ABC News, adding that no decisions had been made about whether to hold any service member accountable.
“We have accepted responsibility for our mistakes,” Department of Defense spokesman Capt. John Kirby told ABC News. “We have expressed condolences and regrets.”
But the U.S. narrative differs fundamentally to that provided by Pakistani military officers in both Washington and Islamabad.
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 10 miles north of base 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 nearby base Boulder fired illuminating rounds as a way to signal to the NATO helicopters — not the mortar and artillery 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.”
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