NATO strike in Pak: No charges against US soldiers

New York: The US military has decided that none of its soldiers involved in a NATO airstrike in November last year that had killed 24 Pakistani soldiers will face disciplinary charges, an incident that had plunged the bilateral ties to a new low.

A second inquiry to determine whether any American military personnel should be held accountable for the incident concluded that the Americans fired in self-defence and should not be punished, `The New York Times` reported quoting three senior military officials. "We found nothing criminally negligent on the part of any individual in our investigations of the incident," a senior American military official was quoted as saying.

The other mistake that contributed to the fatal cross-border strike was the regrettable result of battlefield confusion. Ties between the US and Pakistan plunged to a new low after the November incident, which had also complicated the allied mission in Afghanistan.

An American investigation in December had found that both US and Pakistani troops were to be blamed for the deadly exchange of fire, but had noted that the Pakistanis fired the first shots from two border posts.

The investigation had found that the Pakistani soldiers had kept firing even after the Americans tried to warn them that they were shooting at allied troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan has rejected these conclusions and blamed the American forces for the deadly incident. After the December investigation, the American chain of command in Afghanistan and at the Central Command set out to determine culpability of its soldiers involved.

"They found none that warranted criminal charges, nor significant discipline like fines or demotions," the report said, adding that a soldier could receive an administrative reprimand, but those matters are held privately within the unit or command.

"The military`s decision is expected to anger Pakistani officials at a time when the two countries are gingerly trying to patch up a security relationship left in tatters over the past year from a series of episodes," including the shooting of two Pakistanis in Lahore by a CIA contractor and the Navy SEALs raid in Abbottabad that killed bin Laden, the NYT said.

Head of the US military`s Central Command Gen James Mattis is scheduled to hold long-delayed meetings this week in Islamabad with Pakistani army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to discuss the airstrike probe, as well as new border coordination procedures to prevent the episode`s recurrence. Mattis is also expected to discuss opportunities for training, arms sales and improving border coordination centres, military officials said.

The November attack had set in motion two inquiries with the first investigation concluding that Pakistani troops fired first on a joint Afghan-American patrol, prompting the Americans to respond with fire.

The investigation had determined that it took about 45 minutes for a NATO operations officer in Afghanistan to notify a senior allied commander about Pakistan`s calls that its outposts were under attack, one of several breakdowns in communication that contributed to the airstrike.

American military legal experts said that the episode illustrated the difficulties of assigning blame when an unintended chain of events results in tragedy. "The absence of disciplinary action in a specific case doesn`t mean that there was a cover-up or anything like that," said Charles Dunlap, a retired Air Force major general.

"Rather, it may well simply indicate that a tragic accident occurred, and the fog and friction of war make the facts such that assigning criminal responsibility is just not the right thing to do."

US troops have taken several steps in the wake of the airstrike to ensure such an accident does not happen again. These include reviewing and harmonising all directives related to border operations, increased training and coordination, improved surveillance before missions and more current information on the location of border installations on both sides.

"Cross-border communications have been improved, command levels at border coordination centres have increased, and command relationships have been redefined where needed," NATO spokesman Jimmie Cummings said.

Pakistan`s Parliament is scheduled to resume debate this week on its review of relations with the United States. Obama is also expected to meet Pakistan Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani tomorrow in Seoul, where the two will take part in the nuclear security conference.