NEW: Two narratives emerge over deadly November airstrike
NEW: Distrust between both sides added to the confusion, U.S. says
NEW: Pakistan insists that they were fired upon first
NEW: The incident threatens to worsen relations between the two countries
Two differing narratives about what sparked a November confrontation that resulted in an airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers emerged Thursday, threatening to increase distrust between the two sides.
In fact, distrust is one of the factors that may have exacerbated the “inadequate coordination” that lead the deadly incident between strained allies.
The U.S. investigation found that its forces acted in self-defense after being fired upon in Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border.
But Pakistan has said that it was the other way around – that their forces were attacked first – and intelligence sources doubled down on that version after the U.S. findings were announced.
The disagreement over the events of November 26 are likely to further erode the already fragile relations between the United States and Pakistan.
The Pentagon report, based on about 60 interviews with coalition officials, “draws some connections that may not have been obvious in the immediate aftermath of the incident,” said Brig. Gen. Stephen A. Clark, who led the investigation.
According to Clark, a coalition team heading toward an Afghan village near the Pakistani border came under attack from “very direct and heavy” machine gun fire, as well as to incoming mortars.
The ground commander responded with a “show of force,” with an F-15 jet and AC-130 gunship making their presence known and dropped flares illuminating the area, Clark said.
“This is key for the ground tactical leader’s mindset in that there should be no doubt in anybody’s minds that these are coalition forces in the area,” he said.
When the firing and mortars didn’t stop, the airstrike was called in.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials told CNN Thursday their country’s investigation into the incident contradicts the findings of the U.S. report.
“Every Pakistani soldier knows that the Taliban doesn’t have gunships and AC-130s,” one high-ranking official close to the investigation said. “But that’s not the point. The point is that they contend that we fired first. They’re wrong. They fired first. We responded. And then they called in the air support, and proceeded to attack us at length.”
“The (Department of Defense’s) findings are strange, and contradict what we have communicated so far to the Americans. This report is not good news,” a second intelligence official added.
The officials asked not to be named because they are not authorized to discuss security issues.
According to Clark, there were two separate engagements at the site where they originally came under fire, and a third one about 40 minutes later further north.
A series of miscommunications apparently kept the two sides from discovering that they were firing at friendlies.
The first could be described as a misunderstanding.
Before the coalition aircraft opened fire, the Americans asked the Pakistanis if they had any personnel in the area, Clark said. The answer that came back was along the lines of “no, but let us check,” which made its way to the ground as simply “no.”
Only then did the airstrikes begin, Clark said.
The second and third critical missteps could be blamed on distrust.
At one point, about an hour into the confrontation, the Pakistani military reported to the Americans that they were under attack. When asked for their location, the Pakistanis didn’t want to give their location up, arguing that the coalition forces must know where they were because they were firing at them, Clark said.
Furthermore, while the coalition forces had the exact coordinates of where their troops were, a decision was made to give the Pakistanis only a general location of where they were, Clark said.
Because of an inaccurate map, the description the coalition forces gave was not accurate, he said.
Pakistan’s military has repeatedly insisted the airstrike near the Afghan border was deliberate, and the Pakistani government ordered the American military to vacate an air base used to launch drone strikes.
The Defense Department said the findings of the investigation have been shared with the Pakistani and Afghan governments as well as key NATO leadership.
The Defense Department statement said the focus now is to learn from mistakes.
“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. We earnestly hope the Pakistani military will join us in bridging that gap,” the department said.
In an effort to preempt the results of the investigation, the Pakistani Embassy in Washington last week invited reporters for a detailed briefing on the incident.
The Pakistani officials at the briefing argued that well-established operating procedures and an intricate system for operational information sharing were deliberately ignored, which led to the deaths.
Journalist Wajahat S. Khan contributed to this report.