On Tuesday, Pakistan’s cabinet decided to boycott a key international conference on Afghanistan’s future, set to take place on Dec. 5 in Bonn, Germany. Pakistan’s participation, and its cooperation in the wind-down to the war in Afghanistan, is important in large part because of the leverage it is believed to have over the Taliban.
Both sides said they believed they were attacking insurgents along the border Saturday when the strike was launched. A senior Pakistani defense official acknowledged that Pakistani troops fired first, sending a flare, followed by mortar and machine-gun fire, toward what he said was “suspicious activity” in the brush-covered area below their high-altitude outpost barely 500 yards from the border.
According to Afghan security officials, their commandos were engaged with U.S. Special Operations troops in a nighttime raid against suspected Taliban insurgents when they came under cross-border fire and called in an airstrike.
Despite extensive coordination mechanisms set up to prevent such encounters, the U.S. military failed to respond to Pakistani alerts that its troops were being bombed, said the Pakistani defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue on the record.
“We told them, hold your horses, these are ours,” the official said. While repeated urgent appeals went up the coalition chain of command, he said, the airstrike continued for an hour and a half against two Pakistani border positions and a contingent of troops.
Administration and U.S. defense officials raised the possibility of a different set of circumstances but declined to elaborate.
“Where we are is that we’ve regretted the loss of life and said there should be an investigation,” said a U.S. official who agreed to speak about the tense situation only on the condition of anonymity. “We've just got to put one foot in front of the other here.”
The Pentagon placed the U.S. Central Command in charge of the inquiry, and Centcom’s commander, Gen. James N. Mattis, announced Monday that a Special Operations officer would head it. Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark was directed to include representatives of NATO and the Pakistani and Afghan governments on the investigation team and to report his conclusions by Dec. 23.
Pakistani anger rising
The investigation, however, risked being overtaken by events in Pakistan, where the government and military commanders are under strong pressure from the increasingly anti-American Pakistani public and the ranks of the army to end counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.