By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
KABUL, Afghanistan — Mistakes by both American and Pakistani forces led to airstrikes against Pakistani posts on the Afghanistan border that killed 26 Pakistani Army soldiers last month, according to a Pentagon investigation that for the first time acknowledged some American responsibility for the clash, which plunged the already frayed relationship between the United States and Pakistan to a new low. But a crucial finding — that the Pakistanis fired first — was likely to further anger Pakistan.
American officials said Thursday that the investigation, which has not yet been released, had concluded the airstrikes were an act of self-defense ultimately justified because Pakistani soldiers opened fire on a joint team of Afghan and American special operations forces operating along the often poorly demarcated frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“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,” the Department of Defense said in a statement Thursday. The American investigator “also found that there was no intentional effort to target persons or places known to be part of the Pakistani military.”
Pakistan has insisted its forces did nothing wrong, and that they certainly did not fire the first shots. Rather, senior Pakistani military and civilian officials have openly accused the United States of knowingly striking the border posts. Officials in Pakistan have said they will accept nothing short of a complete apology from President Obama.
The Defense Department statement did include an apology, though it did not appear to go as far as Pakistani officials have demanded. “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,” it said. “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.”
American officials had not planned to release any results of the investigation by the United States Central Command this week and were still redacting parts of the report and determining what details could be publicized and what should remain classified, said a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be identified because the full report remains classified. But with word spreading in Washington about the report’s main findings, the Defense Department put out its statement early Thursday as American officials in Islamabad, Washington and Kabul scrambled to brief their Pakistani counterparts and try to limit the fallout before news of the findings became public.
“The message we’re trying to convey tonight is that there were some pretty serious breakdowns all around,” said an American official in the region on Thursday, a few hours before the statement was released. “How does Pakistan react? We hope we can start moving forward.”
Based on the Defense Department’s statement and the accounts of American and Western officials who have seen the results of the investigation, the report lays out Washington’s counternarrative to the Pakistani accusations that their forces were intentionally and repeatedly targeted over the course of two hours after midnight on Nov. 26. Some elements of the report confirm what Pakistani officials have been saying about the airstrikes, but others contradict the Pakistani account, said officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been released.
The conclusion is that both sides erred. “Inadequate coordination by U.S. 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,” the Defense Department statement said.
“This, coupled with other gaps in information about the activities and placement of units from both sides, contributed to the tragic result,” it said without detailing what actually took place in the small hours of Nov. 26.
Complete at NY Times