The jury’s not yet out on the worst friendly-fire incident of the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan, but that hasn’t stopped the two sides from pointing fingers at each other.
An American paper, the Wall Street Journal, quoting US officials, reported on Friday that Pakistani officials gave the go-ahead to a NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani troops, unaware that their own forces were in the area.
The American officials, giving their first detailed explanation of the incident, told the Wall Street Journal that an Afghan-led assault force, which included US commandos, was hunting Taliban militants when it came under fire from an encampment along the border with Pakistan.
The commandos thought they were being fired on by militants but they turned out to be Pakistani military personnel who had established a temporary campsite, they were quoted as saying.
According to the initial US account from the field, the commandos requested airstrikes against the encampment, prompting the team to contact a joint border-control centre to determine whether Pakistani forces were in the area, a US official said.
The border-control centre is manned by US, Afghan and Pakistani representatives. But the US and Afghan forces conducting the November 26 commando operation had not notified the centre in advance that they planned to strike Taliban insurgents near that part of the border, the official said.
When called, the Pakistani representatives at the centre said there were no Pakistani military forces in the area identified by the commandos, clearing the way for the airstrikes, the US officials said.
A Pakistani military official categorically denied the WSJ’s account, saying the aircraft had already engaged when Pakistan was contacted.
“Wrong information about the area of operation was provided to Pakistani officials a few minutes before the strike,” said the official, who was not authorised to speak to the media.
“Without getting clearance from the Pakistan side, the post had already been engaged by US helicopters and fighter jets. Pakistan did not have any prior information about any operation in the area.”
The WSJ added, however, that the officials cautioned that the preliminary account was based mainly on interviews with members of the commando team and could change as more information is gathered. A formal report on the incident is due to be completed by US military investigators by December 23.
[With input from Reuters]
Published in The Express Tribune, December 3rd, 2011.