The International Security Assistance Force briefed the media on the findings of an investigation into the events that led to the deaths of 24 Pakistani officers and soldiers during airstrikes in the Mohmand tribal agency on the night of Nov. 25-26.
The briefing was given earlier today by Brigadier General Stephen Clark, a senior officer in the US Air Force Special Operation Command who was assigned to lead the investigation. [See the full transcript of the briefing at the US Department of Defense’s website.]
The investigation showed that US forces involved in the clash with Pakistani troops “acted in self- defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon,” and that there was “no intentional effort to target persons or places known to be part of the Pakistani military or to deliberately provide inaccurate location information to Pakistani officials,” as Pakistani military officials have accused, according to George Little, a spokesman for the US Department of Defense.
Little said that “inadequate coordination by US and Pakistani military officers operating through the border coordination center, including our reliance on incorrect mapping information shared with the Pakistani liaison officer, resulted in a misunderstanding about the true location of Pakistani military units.”
“This, coupled with other gaps in information about the activities and placement of units from both sides contributed to the tragic results,” Little continued.
Clark said that Pakistani troops continued to fire after it was clear that ISAF forces were involved in the engagement. He also pointed to “the over-arching lack of trust in giving precise information” to Pakistani officers after previous border incidents. Clark further noted that the Pakistani military refused to cooperate with the investigation into the Mohmand incident.
The cross-border incident was sparked after more than 120 US and Afghan troops conducted an operation in the remote, mountainous village of Nawa in Kunar province, about 1 kilometer from the Pakistani border. The troops were dropped off outside of Nawa by helicopter at about 10 p.m. local time on Nov. 25, and then marched to the village on a “goat path” before taking fire from Pakistani troops.
Just after 11 p.m. local time, the ISAF and Afghan force took heavy machine gun and “accurate mortar fire” from a ridgeline along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Some of the mortars struck within 50 yards of the helicopter landing zone, leading the ground commander to believe the enemy was using night vision goggles to detect their infrared (IR) strobes.
“And it was with such precision that the ground force commander directed his people to turn off their IR strobes that they have, that you can see through your night vision devices, because he felt the fire was so accurate that somebody was seeing their location through their night vision goggles,” Clark said.
The ground forces commander attempted to identify the location of Pakistani forces in the area, as the attack was coming from Pakistan. At the same time he ordered a “show of force constituted” by a circling F-15 and an AC-130 gunship. The aircraft fired off their flares, “which effectively illuminates the entire valley,” and the F-15 was also streaking across the sky with afterburners on.
“There should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that it’s now coalition forces in the area; which is the intent of the show of force,” Clark said, as the Taliban do not possess aircraft. But nonetheless, “[t]his show of force does not cause the machine gun fire, nor the mortars, to cease firing upon his [the ground forces commander’s] position.”
As the fighting continued, “a series of miscommunications” led the ground commander and higher command to believe that there were no Pakistani forces in the area. Clark said that Pakistani officials at the Border Coordination Center did not provide the exact location of border outposts in the area, while ISAF officers would only give the “general location” where the fighting was taking place.
“This goes back to the opening part of an overarching lack of trust between the two sides as far as giving out specifics, but it’s also a very specific failure that occurred now that we have a firefight on our hands,” Clark said.
At about 1 a.m. on Nov. 26, when the ISAF troops received confirmation that “there were Pakistani military in the area and that they were border posts,” the ISAF troops immediately ended the engagement with the Pakistani troops.
Clark said that the efforts to prevent such incidents, including the establishment of the Border Coordination Center, failed to prevent the deadly clash due to an “evolving lack of trust. ”
“Because of the evolving lack of trust … from what is believed and indicated to us, a perception from ISAF that the Pakistanis are unwilling to give or reticent to give full disclosure on all their border locations, for one and two, they are under the impression that when they have shared specifics, that some of their operations have been compromised,” Clark said. He mentioned an incident in the same area on Oct. 5 “when they went to in-fill the helicopters, they were hit with RPG fire,” as indicative of the fact that “ISAF operations [were] being compromised by sharing [specific location] information” with the Pakistani military.
“That was out of the scope of this investigation, so I — we neither examined that deeply nor can validate that, but it is a perception that is out there and it is real for the people involved,” he continued.
Pakistani military officials continue to maintain that the US “deliberately” attacked their troops, and have demanded an apology. Pakistan has closed the border crossings to NATO supplies, ejected the CIA from a military base that was used to support Predator drone strikes in the tribal areas, and has said it is reevaluating its cooperation with the US in the War on Terror.
The US government has refused to apologize, but instead has offered its regrets and condolences for the loss of Pakistani lives during the clash. Little reiterated the US government’s position.
“For the loss of life and for the lack of proper coordination between U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to those losses, we express our deepest regret,” he said at the outset of today’s briefing. “We further express sincere condolences to the Pakistani people, to the Pakistani government and, most importantly, to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who were killed or wounded.”
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.