A U.S. military account of a NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers over the weekend suggests the deaths resulted from a case of mistaken identity, The Associated Press learned Monday.
The incident was the deadliest case of friendly fire with Pakistan since the Afghanistan war began, and has sent the perpetually difficult U.S.-Pakistan relationship into a tailspin.
The Associated Press has learned details of the raid, which began when a joint U.S.-Afghan special operations team was attacked by militants just inside Afghanistan. It ended when NATO gunships and attack helicopters fired on two encampments they thought were used by militants but were actually Pakistani border posts, the military account said.
U.S. officials say the account suggests that the Taliban may have deliberately tried to provoke a cross-border firefight that would set back fragile partnerships between the U.S. and NATO forces and Pakistani soldiers at the ill-defined border.
Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. 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 U.S. military records described to the AP, the joint U.S. and Afghan patrol requested backup after being hit by mortar and small arms fire by Taliban militants in the early hours Saturday.
Officials described the records on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
Before responding, the joint U.S.-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 U.S. commander spotted what he thought was a militant encampment, with heavy weapons mounted on tripods.
The exact location of the border is in dispute in several areas.
Then the joint patrol called for the air strikes at 2:21 a.m. Pakistani time, not realizing the encampment was apparently the Pakistani border post.
Records show the aerial response included Apache attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship.
U.S. officials are working on the assumption the Taliban chose the location for the first attack, to create just such confusion, and draw U.S. and Pakistani forces into firing on each other, according to U.S. officials briefed on the operation.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama considers the Pakistani deaths a tragedy, and said the administration is determined to investigate.
"This is obviously a significant issue that we take seriously," said Carney. "As for our relationship with Pakistan, it continues to be an important cooperative relationship that is also very complicated ... It is very much in America's national security interest to maintain a cooperative relationship with Pakistan because we have shared interests in the fight against terrorism."
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 coordinated, and what caused the deaths and injuries.
Mattis asked Clark to also form any recommendations about how border operations could be improved, and he said the final report should be submitted by December 23.
Key disputes being examined by U.S. military official include the breakdown in communications, and why U.S. troops believed they were responding to insurgent fire and that there were no friendly forces in the area.
The details emerged as aftershocks of the NATO airstrike were reverberating across the U.S. military and diplomatic landscape Monday, threatening communications and supply lines for the Afghan war and the success of an upcoming international conference.
While U.S. 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 U.S. officials were working to repair relations with the Pakistanis after a series of major setbacks, including the U.S. commando raid into Pakistan in May that killed Osama bin Laden.
In recent weeks, military leaders had begun expressing some optimism that U.S.-Pakistan military cooperation along the border was beginning to improve.
U.S. 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.
"We've had some very good cases in the last three weeks of the (Pakistan military) coordinating with us to respond against those cross-border fires," Allyn told a Pentagon press conference. "The positive sign from our perspective is the responsiveness with which the (Pakistan military) border forts have coordinated actions against the firing."
Speaking to reporters 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. "We hope to move beyond this and enter into a constructive relationship as we have been for some time."
The military fallout began almost immediately.
Pakistan has blocked vital supply routes for U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan and demanded Washington vacate a base used by American drones.
U.S. officials, however, said Monday that there were no immediate concerns about disruptions to the supply lines, adding that there are alternate routes and a large amount of stocks available.
And the drone operation at Pakistan's Shamsi air base had already been limited to only servicing drones that had mechanical or weather difficulties, so shutting the base will in no way end the drone program, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.
CIA Director David Petraeus called his Pakistani counterpart, intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, to keep the lines of communication open, a U.S. official said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
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.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Pakistani officials told the U.S. they are reviewing their participation. He acknowledged that the weekend incident was a setback for U.S.-Pakistani relations.
The conference next week in Bonn, Germany, seeks a strategy to stabilize Afghanistan a decade after al-Qaida used the country as a base to launch the 9/11 attacks and U.S.-backed forces overthrew the Taliban.
Toner urged Pakistan to attend.
The State Department also issued a new warning for U.S. citizens in Pakistan. It said that all U.S. government personnel working in Pakistan were being recalled to Islamabad and warned Americans to be on guard for possible retaliation. U.S. citizens in Pakistan are being told to travel in pairs, avoid crowds and demonstrations and keep a low profile.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Bradley Klapper and Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.