KABUL – An investigation into a NATO attack that killed 24 Pakistani troops last month near the Afghan border has concluded that a combination of mistrust and bad maps led to the airstrikes on two Pakistani outposts, the U.S. Department of Defense and a NATO official said on Thursday.
"The report says we recognize we made mistakes, and that mistakes were also made by the Pakistanis," said the NATO official, who could not be named because the Defense Department's investigation has not yet been made public.
"We have a lot of work to do to improve coordination, and we've already implemented steps to do that," the official said.
The Defense Department said in a statement Thursday that the investigation found U.S. forces -- given what information they had available to them at the time -- reacted in self-defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon from the direction of the Pakistani border in the Nov. 26 incident.
"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," said the statement, which was released in Washington.
"This, coupled with other gaps in information about the activities and placement of units from both sides, contributed to the tragic result," it said.
Since the Nov. 26 attack on the Pakistani military outposts on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in mountainous east Kunar province, a furious Pakistani government has shut down NATO supply routes to Afghanistan and thrown the U.S. out of its Shamsi Air base in southwestern Baluchistan province. The base was used to maintain drones used in strikes against insurgents hiding in safe havens in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt on the Afghan frontier.
"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. 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," the statement said.
It added that the military's focus would now be to learn from the mistakes and "take whatever corrective measures are required to ensure an incident like this is not repeated."
"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 statement said.
The NATO official said the incident occurred after a company-sized joint U.S.-Afghan commando unit operating in the Afghan side of the border in eastern Kunar province came under fire from the direction of the border. A company is about 150 troops.
The unit, which could not withdraw safely due to the nature of the terrain, then attempted to determine that the fire wasn't coming from anywhere near Pakistani positions, in order to avoid hitting them, the official said.
At that point "mistakes were made" because different mapping systems were used to determine the exact location of the firefight, he said. Discrepancies on how the border was marked on different maps led the unit to believe they could safely return fire. They then called in airstrikes from F-15 fighter bombers, Apache attack helicopters and an AC-130 Spectre gunship.
"There was also an element of mistrust that contributed to the mistakes," the official said, citing the report.