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Will Pentagon’s Errors Admission in Deadly Pakistani Airstrike Smooth Relations?

December 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A Pentagon inquiry released Thursday conceded that some mistakes were made in a November airstrike on two Pakistani outposts near the Afghan border that killed 24 troops. Margaret Warner discusses the Pentagon's expressed regret for the loss of life and strained U.S.-Pakistani ties with The Wall Street Journal's Adam Entous.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the U.S. admits mistakes in an attack that worsened relations with its sometime ally, Pakistan.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Ties between the two countries have been in a tailspin for months, especially after U.S. special forces found and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.

Then, late last month, U.S. aircraft struck two Pakistani outposts near the Afghan border, killing 24 troops. Outraged, Pakistan shut down critical NATO supply routes into Afghanistan. Initially, the U.S. insisted the airstrikes began only after a Pakistani military representative gave the all-clear.

But, today, after a weeks-long investigation, the Pentagon did concede some American errors.

GEORGE LITTLE, Pentagon press secretary: The investigating officer found that U.S. forces, given what information they had available to them at the time, acted in self-defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon.

Nevertheless, inadequate coordination by U.S. and Pakistani military officers, operating through the border coordination center, including our reliance on incorrect mapping information shared with the Pakistani liaison officer, resulted in a misunderstanding about the true location of Pakistani military units. This, coupled with other gaffes in information about the activities and placement of units from both sides, contributed to the tragic result.

MARGARET WARNER: The Pentagon expressed regret for the loss of life and the inadequate coordination in what’s been the deadliest friendly-fire incident of the Afghan war.

For more on the story, we go to Wall Street Journal reporter Adam Entous.

And Adam, welcome.

So, first, set the scene for us. What happened that deadly night?

ADAM ENTOUS, The Wall Street Journal: Well, what happened was is, we had a what appeared to be a routine operation. About 120 Afghan and U.S. commandos came into a valley. They land in helicopters. It’s pitch-black. There’s no moon that night. And they begin to ascend.

As they’re winding up these narrow trails, they take fire from overhead. And that’s when the, that’s when this engagement begins and the mistakes begin to add up.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the general who did brief reporters today said there were two critical, I think he called them points of failure on the part of the U.S.

Let’s take the first one. What went wrong in the first place?

ADAM ENTOUS: This was a classic case of miscommunication.

The commander on the ground asked relayed back to his command to ask whether there were any Pakistani military forces in the area after they had taken fire. What he got back was a message that was only partial. It said that there were — that they were seeing no — they were following no Pakistani military troops in that area. And, with that information, the attack commenced.

MARGARET WARNER: And we should point out that they were still ascending, what, on the Afghan side, but the fire was coming from the Pakistani side of the border.

ADAM ENTOUS: That’s right. It was coming from over their heads, the…

MARGARET WARNER: And why was the information incomplete?

ADAM ENTOUS: It’s unclear at this point. We don’t really have a full sense of what happened, why the message was relayed in this way, and why they only got part of the message.

The first part of the message that they missed was that they were still checking to see if there were Pakistani troops there.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what was the second point of failure?

ADAM ENTOUS: The second point was — this is after the attack had initiated. The information about where this was taking place was relayed to a border communication coordination center, where there’s liaisons there from the Afghan side, the Americans, as well as the Pakistanis.

The — while the ISAF or NATO force — officers there had the complete coordinates, they were…

MARGARET WARNER: Of where this firefight, first of all, was taking place.

ADAM ENTOUS: Exactly. But they were — they were not told to share that exact information with the Pakistani side.

So what they gave instead was a general location. Then you had a classic map malfunction, where they literally — they literally overlaid the wrong map on top of the coordinates.

MARGARET WARNER: This is the U.S…

ADAM ENTOUS: Or the ISAF officer there shared with the Pakistani representative there the wrong area, to which it was nine — about nine miles north of where the actual firefight was taking place.

So, the representative had no way to know that he had troops in that area.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, at what point did the forces, the U.S. and Afghan commandos, call in the airstrikes?

ADAM ENTOUS: That started initially after they were engaged.

They began by first using these aircraft that were already in the area to send off flares to try to ward off the attack. When that did not work, and then the miscommunication, the first miscommunication occurred, and they were — the commander — the commander on the ground was told that there were no Pakistani military troops in the area, then the attack began at that stage.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the DOD statement started out basically, the substantive part, saying, however, that U.S. forces, given the information available to them, acted in self-defense and with appropriate force.

What is that based on?

ADAM ENTOUS: This is based on the contention by the U.S. that the firing began on the Pakistani side of the border, that this was an unprovoked attack on these commandos as they were doing their operation, and by — you know, they were responding to try to prevent from — their own forces from being hit.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the general in charge of the investigation said to reporters today — and, in fact, I think it’s in the statement — that another major contributing factor was just the mistrust that exists between the U.S. and Pakistan.

In what way?

ADAM ENTOUS: Well, this has been an incredible year in the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. And it couldn’t be worse, the relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, how did it play into this?

ADAM ENTOUS: They — for example, the U.S. side didn’t know that these border posts were there, they say.

The Pakistanis had not shared that information, updated information with the Americans. At the same time, U.S. forces, you know, while they are supposed to share information with their Pakistani counterparts, are very nervous doing so because of instances where they feel like the Pakistani counterparts tipped off insurgents and, as a result, comprised those operations. So both sides don’t trust each other.

MARGARET WARNER: So, they’re both holding back, and then you have this confusion?

ADAM ENTOUS: Exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Pakistanis have been insisting on an apology in return for, you know, reopening, say, the border crossings.

The Pentagon expressed regret today. Did they consider that, one, an apology? Two, is there more coming? And, three, do the DOD people you talk to hope that this is enough to have the Pakistanis reopen these border crossings?

ADAM ENTOUS: I think they were optimistic earlier this week that, having this more conciliatory report come out, that the Pakistanis were going to be inclined to open the border crossings as early as next week.

And I think at this stage, they are waiting to see what happens. It’s all very complicated because of Pakistani public opinion. And Pakistani public opinion is so anti-American right now, it is going to be very hard for the Pakistani leadership to back down from this and accept anything less than a full apology, which at this point we don’t necessarily see coming from the U.S.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, do your DOD sources expect any kind of disciplinary action on the U.S. side?

ADAM ENTOUS: It’s hard to see because, at this stage, they’ve said that the — that their response to the fire was legitimate and they were acting in self-defense.

At the same time, you can see several layers of mistakes occurred. But all of them seem to be mostly technical, and maybe it was a communications issue, where literally radio communications were broken off too early. At this point, we don’t know. And that’s not the job of this investigation. That’s going to be up to the commanders now.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal, thank you.

ADAM ENTOUS: Thank you.