WASHINGTON — The killing of 11 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers by American airstrikes last month might have been prevented if the precise location of a border checkpoint had been in an American database used to prevent accidental attacks on friendly forces, according to American and Pakistan officials.
Had the grid coordinates of the post on the border with Afghanistan been in the database, red flags would have immediately gone up when allied troops called in airstrikes during a border clash with insurgents, American officials briefed on an investigation into the strikes said Tuesday.
The Pakistani forces killed were apparently inside the border post or possibly in bunkers near it, perhaps intermingled with the insurgents who had retreated back across the border into Pakistan after firing on the allied troops on the Afghan side, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry’s results had not yet been officially released.
Pakistani officials say they had provided NATO and the United States with the grid coordinates for all 997 of its border checkpoints. The Americans say they did not have the information for the one struck on June 10.
No blame was assigned by the monthlong inquiry by American, Afghan and Pakistani officials.
The episode initially drew an angry protest from Pakistan’s government and underscored the faulty communication and coordination between allied forces increasingly subject to cross-border attacks by the Taliban and other militants.
It also revealed the deepening frustrations between Pakistan and the United States in what officials on both sides concede is an often dysfunctional and disjointed effort to combat a rising militancy, which uses havens in Pakistan to carry out attacks in neighboring Afghanistan with growing frequency. The attacks have prompted senior NATO and American military officials to press the new Pakistani government for more aggressive action.
“This whole incident is just a poster child for the challenges that the U.S. and Pakistan face,” said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former South Asia specialist for the State Department.
For the investigation, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States decided that each would conduct its own review and then try to reconcile the results. They were largely unsuccessful in comparing notes.
The United States, for instance, expressed regret over the Pakistani deaths but concluded that the strikes had hit their targets, and that they were justified to defend the small team of American-led soldiers. American officials said a Pakistani liaison officer had approved the strikes.
But Pakistan has disputed that, telling American officials that none of its officers had cleared the strikes or artillery fire.
To avert further damage to relations, the United States and Pakistan have essentially agreed to disagree over important points, like whether the Pakistani forces had been helping the insurgents.
“Yes, there are disagreements over the facts,” said a Pakistani official who had been briefed on his government’s side of the story, and who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “But playing this down is the only way forward. This is a relationship that Pakistan does not want to spoil.”
The two governments have pledged to take steps to improve coordination and communication along the rugged, sparsely populated frontier, to prevent such events in the future.
Efforts will probably include more prominent border checkpoints, a detailed system for tracking the location of crossing points on both sides of the border, and commitments to build more border coordination centers to be staffed by American, Pakistani and Afghan troops.
“We have worked with them over time to ensure we have accurate grid coordinates for all locations,” a senior American defense official said. “If this position were in our database, it would have triggered a cautionary flag.”
“At this point,” he said, “I think it can best be described as a problem in border coordination.”
According to accounts from American officials, the episode started when Taliban fighters from Pakistan crossed about 200 yards into Afghanistan’s Kunar Province and attacked a group of American-led troops with small-caliber weapons and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
After the troops returned fire, driving the insurgents back into Pakistan, American warplanes, including a B-1 bomber, dropped about a dozen bombs — mostly 500-pound munitions — on the attackers. The ground troops also called in artillery fire. A Taliban spokesman said eight fighters were killed and nine wounded.
The 11 Pakistani soldiers killed included a major; all were from a paramilitary detachment of the Frontier Corps, a force of about 85,000 members recruited from ethnic groups on the border.
The Pakistani military initially called the airstrikes “unprovoked and cowardly,” and Pakistani officials threatened to postpone or cancel an American program to train a paramilitary force in counterinsurgency tactics. Since then, both sides have sought to cool the heated accusations.
Officials from both countries acknowledge that the events illustrated the need to improve Frontier Corps training and equipment. The Pentagon has spent about $25 million to equip the corps with body armor, vehicles, radios and surveillance equipment, and plans to spend $75 million more in the next year.