Blood Money: Afghanistan’s Reparations Files
US Marines observe an area from a school building during a patrol at a village in the Golestan district of Farah province, May 1, 2009. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)
Gunshots shook 20-year-old Jan Agha awake. They woke his father, too. But when the older man pulled aside a curtain to see what was going on in his home, he was shot in the throat and face. Jan Agha lay motionless on the floor, pretending to be dead. Like his father, his mother, brother and sister had all been killed.
The full details of the March 11, 2012, massacre in the district of Panjwai, Kandahar Province, may never be known, but the basic story is well established: sixteen Afghan civilians, many of them women and children, were killed and another six injured as US Army Staff Sgt. Robe 1rt Bales stalked from house to house, shooting and stabbing his victims.
By the end of that month, the United States had offered the victims compensation. In a country where the average annual income is about $425, the families of those killed in Panjwai received $50,000 for each of their dead relatives, while injured survivors were given about $11,000. The Afghans were reportedly told the money was assistance provided by President Obama.
The outsized reparations offered in the wake of that horrific mass murder stand in stark contrast to the compensation offered to most Afghans who have suffered as a result of the US war. A much more typical case occurred on March 27, 2009, when an American unit on patrol in Kunar Province, traveling in a convoy, rolled through the village of Bar Kanday. There, the lead vehicle clipped a 3-year-old girl who was crossing the street, “causing serious injury to her left arm,” according to military documents. The girl’s father received the equivalent of $392.16.
The incident in Bar Kanday is one of hundreds of cases of deaths, injuries and property damage recorded in a 1,000-plus-page archive of US military reparations documents obtained by The Nation through the Freedom of Information Act. The records offer a glimpse of the everyday suffering of Afghan civilians caught in the path of war and the means by which the US military has endeavored to make amends.
The files, produced between 2008 and 2011 and released by the US Central Command, were redacted by military censors, who excised almost all names and much of the descriptive information. The collection of “payment request forms” and pay vouchers is neither inclusive nor comprehensive—most of the documents cover only a handful of US units and a few discrete areas of Kunar Province with any depth.
There is also no way to ascertain the percentage of total compensation payments these documents represent. “Solatium” (from the Latin word for “solace”) is defined by the military as “monetary compensation given in areas where it is culturally appropriate to alleviate grief, suffering, and anxiety resulting from injuries, death, and property loss with a monetary payment.” The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) keeps no comprehensive records on payments made for “damage to property, compensation or condolence,” according to a military spokesman. “As a consequence,” he told The Nation, “there is no ‘total dollar amount’ maintained by either [the ISAF Joint Command] or ISAF.”
Even if coalition forces comprehensively tracked payments, such data would reflect the compensation eventually awarded only to that fraction of Afghans who managed to overcome language and cultural barriers, and who lived near a coalition base and had the means to lodge a complaint. As a major Pentagon study of civilian casualties obtained by The Nation noted, the “lack of consistent policies and procedures among nations and even specific units” meant that “processes and designated locations for seeking compensation were not always clear to the Afghan population, so locals did not necessarily pursue compensation when appropriate.”
Afghanistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad, said there was really “no system for compensation. If someone is killed near a PRT [provincial reconstruction team] office or close to a military base, they go there,” he told The Nation. “But if there’s a drive-by shooting on the Kandahar-to-Kabul road, in a remote area, who knows whose troops were responsible? People will go to the local PRT or to the local military, and maybe it’s troops from New Zealand or Canada, and they say, ‘It wasn’t us.’ And nothing happens.” (For the record, New Zealand withdrew its forces from Afghanistan earlier this year.)