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Bad Coordination Blamed for NATO Attack on Pakistanis

Al Pessin | Pentagon 06 October 2010

A joint NATO-Pakistani investigation has concluded that better cross-border coordination could have avoided the incident last week in which a NATO helicopter crew based in Afghanistan fired on a Pakistani border post and killed two members of the Frontier Scouts. Pakistan had previously reported that three of its troops died and three were wounded, but the latest release says two were killed and four wounded.

According to a release from the NATO command in Kabul, the joint investigation concluded that the Pakistani border troops fired warning shots when two coalition helicopters crossed into Pakistani territory. U.S. officials say they were in pursuit of insurgents on the Afghan side. The helicopter crew thought it was being fired on and shot two rockets at the Pakistanis. That is the same sequence of events U.S. officials originally reported.

The senior NATO officer on the investigation team, U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Tim Zadalis is quoted as saying, "This tragic event could have been avoided with better coalition force coordination with the Pakistan military."

In the release, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General David Petraeus, expresses regret for the incident, offers condolences to the families affected and pledges to "continue to work with the Pakistan military and government to ensure this doesn't happen again." NATO and Pakistani forces already have a coordination mechanism, and the release did not make clear how it failed to prevent this incident or how it needs to be improved.

But speaking Tuesday, before the report came out, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said he had not heard about any plans to change the rules that govern how U.S. forces operate in the region. And he emphasized that they always have the right to self defense, a right the helicopter crew apparently thought it was exercising after the Pakistani troops fired their weapons.

"We will retain the right to defend our forces, to defend ourselves," said Morrell. "And our forces who operate on the border with Pakistan are in a very dangerous and difficult situation. That is why it is so important for there to be excellent communication and cooperation between coalition, Afghan and Pakistani forces who patrol and protect both sides of that border and try to minimize the traffic of insurgents going back and forth and threatening people on both sides of that border."

The U.S. and Pakistani militaries have a close relationship, and work together on issues ranging from counterinsurgency to intelligence sharing to flood relief. But the relationship also has tensions. The White House issued a report Tuesday criticizing Pakistan's military for not doing enough to confront insurgents in the border areas, even though U.S. military officials have praised the Pakistanis for doing more during the last year than ever before.

In addition, Pakistan allows non-lethal supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan to pass through the Port of Karachi and to be transported by road through two border crossings. After last week's incident, Pakistan barred NATO cargo from the northern crossing in the Khyber Pass. U.S. officials say they expect the ban to end soon.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on Pakistani trucks carrying NATO fuel and other cargo in recent days. Some of the trucks were waiting for the border ban to end, but others were in different parts of the country.

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