ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A U.S. military investigation has blamed poor coordination between American and Pakistani forces for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a friendly fire incident along the Afghanistan border in November, the Pentagon said Thursday.
The fatalities outraged Pakistanis and prompted Islamabad to suspend key elements of cooperation with the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan. Pakistan declined an American invitation to conduct a joint investigation.
"Inadequate coordination by U.S. and Pakistani officers ... resulted in a misunderstanding about the true location of Pakistan military units. This, coupled with other gaps in information about the activities and placement of units from both sides, contributed to the tragic result," the Pentagon said in a statement.
The investigation also determined that Pakistani personnel fired the first shots at the U.S.-Afghan force. Angry Pakistani military officials have denied that assertion in recent weeks, alleging that U.S. forces fired on their personnel without provocation as part of a conspiracy to intimidate Islamabad into dropping its opposition to covert U.S. operations against Afghan insurgents taking refuge in Pakistani tribal regions.
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The Pentagon investigation found that there was "no intentional effort" to target the Pakistani military. It vowed to take measures to prevent such an incident from recurring and said it would work with Pakistan to improve deeply strained relations.
"We cannot operate effectively on the (Afghan) border — or in other parts of our relationship — without addressing the fundamental trust still lacking between us," the statement said. "We earnestly hope the Pakistani military will join us in bridging that gap."
The Pentagon expressed "deep regret" at the Pakistani troop losses. But that was unlikely to please Islamabad, which has said that it wants an apology from President Barack Obama himself.
Pakistani officials were noncommittal in their initial reaction to the Pentagon findings. After Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani conferred late Thursday with the foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, a brief statement merely reiterated that a resumption of cooperation with the U.S. would be subject to terms set by Pakistan's parliament.
Speaking to visiting members of Afghanistan's parliament a day earlier, Gilani cited three conditions for a rapprochement: a guarantee that U.S. forces in Afghanistan would respect Pakistan's territorial sovereignty, an end to CIA drone strikes against targets in Pakistan's tribal regions and — in a direct reference to the May 2 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden — a pledge that the U.S. wouldn't launch any unilateral military action in Pakistan.
Of the drone strikes, which are highly controversial in Pakistan, Gilani said they "have caused collateral damage and must be stopped because they are grossly detrimental to the government's efforts to isolate the terrorist from the local population."
Security experts said that Gilani's conditions reflected a desire in Islamabad that the two countries jointly conduct counterterrorism operations, as they had until 2010. U.S. officials, however, are deeply skeptical of Pakistan's willingness and ability to directly confront extremists on its soil.
"We have started to a demand to return to the earlier promise to mount drone operations against targets in consultation with Pakistan," said Simbal Khan, director of research at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, a think tank funded by the Pakistani foreign affairs ministry.
She said ties had become strained over the last year as the threat posed by al Qaeda diminished. As the focus of U.S. counterterrorism operations switched to the eastern Afghanistan strongholds of the Haqqani network, drone attacks increasingly focused on the group's allies based in Pakistan's tribal areas.
The Haqqani network has been an ally of Pakistan's military since the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It played a key role in ending fighting between its militant allies and Pakistani forces in the tribal regions in 2006, helping to pave the way for Pakistani military operations against Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan insurgents.
The Nov. 26 incident plunged U.S.-Pakistani relations to yet another low point and imperiled several key areas of cooperation in Afghanistan.
Pakistani roads were closed to trucks carrying non-lethal supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan — about one-third of NATO supplies had been transported via Pakistan — and the U.S. was ordered to vacate an isolated air base used to launch non-lethal CIA drone missions.
Pakistan's top spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate, also stopped sharing intelligence about Afghan insurgents with the CIA.
However, other important elements of the relationship, notably intelligence sharing about the movement of al Qaida terrorists in Pakistan's barely governed tribal regions, have not been affected, officials said.
Pakistan has also stopped short of halting U.S. military flights over its territory, and it did not ask for the withdrawal of American search-and-rescue teams based at two other air bases near the Afghan border.
Pakistan has deployed 147,000 troops and paramilitary soldiers in the tribal regions, approximately matching the size of U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Khan said Pakistan was hoping that the White House would prioritize relations with Islamabad to facilitate the scheduled withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
"Those in the White House who feel Pakistan can be used as an asset have started working rigorously for a rapprochement," she said. "But things are still quite dicey."
(Hussain is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)
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