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.
“You cannot win any war without the support of the masses,” Gilani told CNN. “We need the people with us.” Gilani said that “business as usual” with the United States could not continue.
Pakistan has blocked NATO supplies transiting to Afghanistan at two border crossings and threatened to withdraw from an international conference on Afghanistan next week in Germany. A small contingent of U.S. personnel at Shamsi air base in southern Pakistan was told to leave within 15 days.
Relations were already fractured after a series of clashes this year, including the January shooting death of two Pakistanis in Lahore by a CIA contractor, the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May and public U.S. charges that Pakistan’s intelligence service has aided Afghan insurgent networks within its borders.