Confusion and a communication breakdown prevented Pakistan's airforce from scrambling to defend troops on the ground during the deadly NATO bombing last weekend of two border outposts, the military said Friday, responding to rare domestic criticism of the powerful institution.
The Pakistani military, which eats up most of the country's budget and is accountable to no one, has said the attack that killed 24 troops was an "act of deliberate aggression" that went on for close two hours.
It has also said that Pakistani commanders contacted and pleaded with coalition commanders to stop firing.
NATO and U.S. officials have disputed that account, which has triggered uncomfortable questions in this South Asian country over why Pakistan's own fighter jets and helicopters stationed close to the border did not take off to defend the ground troops during the attack.
The military has said troops did fire back at the NATO choppers when they attacked.
A Pakistani military statement on Friday said the response could have been more "effective" if the airforce had been called in, but this was not possible because of a "breakdown of communication" and confusion at "various levels" within the organization.
The incident has pushed already strained ties between Washington and Islamabad over the future of Afghanistan close to rupture. Islamabad has closed its eastern border to NATO supplies traveling into landlocked Afghanistan and said it is reviewing its cooperation with Washington.
U.S. officials expressed their condolences over the loss of life and denied the Pakistan army was deliberately targeted.
But they have not apologized, saying it would not be appropriate before an investigation into the incident has been completed. In the past, NATO and the US has complained that militants along the border are helped or tolerated by Pakistani soldiers.
U.S. officials have said a joint U.S-Afghan patrol came under fire from the Pakistani side of the border and called in airstrikes. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal quoted American officials as saying that Pakistani officers had given the go-ahead for the raid, unaware they had troops in the area.
Pakistan's military also faced criticism after the May 2 unilateral American helicopter-borne raid that killed Osama bin Laden, with questions — yet unanswered — over how the aircraft were able to fly deep into Pakistani territory without the knowledge of the airforce.