Nato forces maybe lured into deadly raid
Washington - Nato forces may have been lured into attacking friendly Pakistani border posts in a calculated manoeuvre by the Taliban, according to preliminary US military reports on the deadliest friendly fire incident with Pakistan since the war began.
The Nato air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers over the weekend in an apparent case of mistaken identity, The Associated Press has learned.
A joint US-Afghan patrol was attacked by the Taliban early on Saturday morning, and while pursuing the enemy in the poorly marked border area, seem to have mistaken one of the Pakistan troop outposts for a militant encampment and called in a Nato gunship and attack helicopters to open fire.
US officials say the account suggests the Taliban may have deliberately tried to provoke a cross-border firefight that would set back fragile partnerships between the US and Nato forces and Pakistani soldiers at the ill-defined border. Officials described the records on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
The incident sent the perpetually difficult US-Pakistan relationship into a tailspin.
Gen James Mattis, head of US Central Command, announced Monday that he has appointed Brig. Gen Stephen Clark, an Air Force special operations officer, to lead the probe of the incident, and said he must include input from the Nato-led forces in Afghanistan, as well as representatives from the Afghan and Pakistani governments.
According to the US military records described to the AP, the joint US and Afghan patrol requested backup after being hit by mortar and small arms fire by Taliban militants.
Before responding, the joint US-Afghan patrol first checked with the Pakistani army, which reported it had no troops in the area, the military account said.
Some two hours later, still hunting the insurgents who had by now apparently fled in the direction of Pakistani border posts, the US commander spotted what he thought was a militant encampment, with heavy weapons mounted on tripods.
Then the joint patrol called for the air strikes at around 02:21 Pakistani time, not realising the encampment was apparently the Pakistani border post.
Records show the aerial response included Apache attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship.
US officials are working on the assumption the Taliban chose the location for the first attack, to create just such confusion, and draw US and Pakistani forces into firing on each other, according to US officials briefed on the operation.
At the White House, spokesperson Jay Carney said President Barack Obama considers the Pakistani deaths a tragedy, and said the administration is determined to investigate.
The Pentagon released a four-page memo from Centcom commander Mattis to the general he named to lead the inquiry. Mattis directed Clark to determine what happened, which units were involved, which ones did or did not cross the border, how the operation was co-ordinated, and what caused the deaths and injuries.
Mattis asked Clark to also make any recommendations about how border operations could be improved, and he said the final report should be submitted by December 23.
The details emerged as aftershocks of the Nato airstrike were reverberating across the US military and diplomatic landscape Monday, threatening communications and supply lines for the Afghan war and the success of an upcoming international conference.
While US officials expressed regret and sympathy over the cross-border incident, they are not acknowledging blame, amid conflicting reports about who fired first.
The airstrike was politically explosive as well as deadly, coming as US officials were working to repair relations with the Pakistanis after a series of major setbacks, including the US commando raid into Pakistan in May that killed Osama bin Laden.
In recent weeks, military leaders had begun expressing some optimism that US-Pakistan military co-operation along the border was beginning to improve.
US Army Maj Gen Daniel Allyn told Pentagon reporters just last Tuesday that incidents of firing from Pakistan territory had tapered off somewhat in recent weeks.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Pentagon press secretary George Little stressed the need for a strong military relationship with Pakistan.
"The Pakistani government knows our position on that, and that is we do regret the loss of life in this incident, and we are investigating it," said Little.
The military fallout began almost immediately.
Pakistan has blocked vital supply routes for US-led troops in Afghanistan and demanded that Washington vacate a base used by American drones. Pakistan ordered CIA employees to mothball their drone operation at Pakistan's Shamsi air base within two weeks, a senior Pakistani official said.
On the diplomatic front, the Obama administration said Pakistan may pull out of an international conference on Afghanistan next week as a result of the incident.
The State Department also issued a new warning for US citizens in Pakistan. It said that all US government personnel working in Pakistan were being recalled to Islamabad and warned Americans to be on guard for possible retaliation.
US citizens in Pakistan are being told to travel in pairs, avoid crowds and demonstrations and keep a low profile.