On the surface, the direct cause of a deadly U.S. helicopter incident that prompted a crisis in relations with Pakistan was faulty mapping information and miscommunication. But the official investigation into the disaster strongly suggests that its real cause is the Pakistani military’s persistent habit of coordinating with insurgents more closely than with U.S. forces.
In late November, a U.S. helicopter in Afghanistan opened fire on a Pakistani military position on the border, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. The acrimony in Islamabad has yet to subside: the Pakistanis kicked the CIA out of a major air base used for the drone war; and shut down overland shipping routes that resupply NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The investigating officer, Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, a special-operations veteran of many helicopter missions, pinned a fair amount of blame on the Americans. “Our reliance on incorrect mapping information” helped result in “a misunderstanding about the true location of Pakistani military units.” Those bad maps were shared with a “Pakistani liaison officer” — a precaution taken to minimize friendly fire — but without the intention to deceive the Pakistanis, Clark found.
But there’s much more to the incident than that. Clark told Pentagon reporters on Thursday morning that a 120-man raiding team operating at night in a village one kilometer from the Pakistani border took heavy, accurate machine gun fire — which prompted the ground commander to call in a “show of force” from AC-130 gunships, Apache helicopters and F-15s overhead for the operation. But even after the aircraft fired flares, leaving “no doubt” that U.S. troops were in the area, the ground force continued to take fire, including from what Clark described as a nearby “ridge line” over the Pakistani border. The Apaches and the AC-130s opened fire on the ridge line at nearly midnight.
Soon after, Pakistani officers began calling their U.S. counterparts to say their forces were under attack. “You know where it is, because you’re shooting at them,” Clark summarized the Pakistanis as saying. “Once they had identified that there was [Pakistani military] in the area, the ground tactical leader ceased fire support from the air,” he said.
Clark faulted the U.S. for not relaying “specific” communications to the Pakistanis about where U.S. forces were operating. There was also confusion between both sides as to exactly where the incident took place, thanks to faulty mapping, resulting in the U.S. describing the location to the Pakistanis “incorrectly.” But he found the problem ran deeper than just a mapping glitch.
“There is a perception from ISAF [the NATO military command in Afghanistan] that the Pakistanis are unwilling or reticent to give full disclosure on all their border locations, and are under the perception that when they have given specifics, their operations have been compromised,” Clark said. “It is out there, and it is real.”
It’s also something that U.S. military commanders have warned about for months. They’ve noted that Pakistani border units have aided insurgents in rocketing U.S. troops on the border — either with active military assistance or by passively ignoring attacks launched near their positions. At some point during the November incident, Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby clarifies, Pakistani military forces positioned on the ridge line — a position unfamiliar to the U.S. before the incident — indeed fired on U.S. troops.
U.S. commanders also warned that ever since the Osama bin Laden raid, Pakistani military officials have effectively stopped coordinating with U.S. troops. U.S.-Pakistani military communications are “not at the regularity that one time they were or that I’d like them to be,” Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the day-to-day commander of the Afghanistan war, told Pentagon reporters in October. Moreover, Pakistan has reportedly tipped off insurgents after learning that the CIA has identified their locations.
Clark’s investigation, accordingly, lists “gaps in information about the activities and placement of units from both sides” as a fundamental cause of the “tragic result.” He said it was beyond the scope of his inquiry to determine whether Pakistan really does tip off insurgents and terrorists — but emphasized that the perception that it does lurked in the background of the mission. (Pakistan didn’t cooperate with Clark’s inquiry anyway.)
“I can only point to the lack of trust in giving precise information,” Clark said.
That may be why the Defense Department’s official statement on the incident both stops short of an apology — it expresses “deepest regret” and “sincere condolences” instead — and all but begs Pakistan to end the silent treatment.
“We cannot operate effectively on the border — or in other parts of our relationship — without addressing the fundamental trust still lacking between us,” the statement reads. “We earnestly hope the Pakistani military will join us in bridging that gap.”
Photo: U.S. Army