REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Pakistan’s military on Monday rejected the Pentagon’s assertion that U.S. forces acted in self-defense when American gunships killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border last year, insisting that the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan was solely responsible for an attack.
Pakistan’s own detailed analysis of the Nov. 26 airstrike comes a month after U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark released findings that acknowledged a series of mistakes by American forces but also faulted Pakistan’s military for initiating the fighting.
The incident further eroded Washington’s ties with a difficult ally it needs to help broker peace talks with Afghan Taliban insurgents who use Pakistan’s tribal border region as sanctuary.
Deeply angered by the airstrike, Pakistani leaders shut down border crossings used by convoys delivering supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan and ordered U.S. personnel to vacate an air base in southern Pakistan that in the past has been suspected as a launch pad for CIA drone attacks.
Eight weeks after the incident, the border crossings remain closed. Pakistani leaders also are drafting new ground rules governing cooperation between the two countries, including the imposition of transit fees on NATO supply convoys when they resume.
In announcing his findings, Clark said the incident began when a U.S. special operations unit scouring an Afghan village for militants and weapons caches came under heavy machine gun fire and mortar shelling from a ridge line in Pakistan. Two Pakistani army outposts were perched along that ridge.
The U.S. unit’s commander called for air support, and moments later a U.S. AC-130 gunship fired on the two Pakistani border posts. Clark said that U.S. forces, “given what information they had at the time, acted in self-defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon” from the Pakistani side of the border.
Clark also concluded that a lack of coordination between American and Pakistani military officers, along with U.S. reliance on wrong mapping information, led to a misunderstanding by U.S. forces about the location of the Pakistani border posts.
In its report, the Pakistani military denies that its soldiers fired on the U.S. special operations unit. Pakistani soldiers at the border posts did fire at what they thought were militants moving about a quarter of a mile away, the Pakistani report states, but that machine gun and mortar fire was directed at a location far from where the U.S. unit was situated.
“There is absolutely no chance that this fire could have landed even close” to U.S. ground forces, the Pakistani report states.
Pakistan’s findings also sharply criticized U.S. commanders for refusing to inform Pakistan in advance about the U.S. unit’s ground operation that night, a decision that U.S. officials have said was grounded in a fear that the information might be shared with insurgents.
The Pakistani report notes that, just hours before the incident, Lt. Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, met with Pakistani army generals to discuss cross-border coordination, but did not mention the ground operation involved in the airstrike.
The Pakistani report also repeats earlier claims by Pakistani military leaders who suggested the U.S. airstrike was not only unprovoked but deliberate. Firing from U.S. military aircraft on the Pakistani border posts stretched over a 90-minute period, the Pakistani report states, “far too long a time for an innocent engagement.”
The report adds that the attack continued after Pakistani military commanders had informed the U.S. that its aircraft were firing on Pakistani soldiers.
The “sustained aggression,” the report states, “belies the self-defense and proportionate use of force contention.”
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Pakistani protesters in December burn an effigy of President Obama during a protest in the city of Peshawar to condemn the killings of 24 Pakistani troops in a U.S. airstrike. Credit: Mohammad Sajjad / Associated Press