Blood Money: Afghanistan’s Reparations Files
Money as a Weapon of War
Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing pushed for adopting a system to pay claims to French civilians during World War I, and the US military in World War II found that paying compensation for harm to civilians “had a pronounced stabilizing effect.” But the modern military reparations system dates to the 1960s. During the Vietnam War, solatia payments were a means for the military to make reparations for Vietnamese civilian injuries or deaths caused by US operations without having to admit guilt. According to Spec. Michael Erard, who coordinated solatia payments for units of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, it “was a condolence-type payment…. It in no way implied or implicated us as the perpetrators of this. So we would pay them a certain amount of money for people lost.” In 1968, the going rate for adult lives was $33. Children merited just half that.
Today, Afghans can receive as much as several thousand dollars for relatives killed by coalition forces and lesser sums for everything from the destruction of homes to the wounding of livestock, via a complicated reparations system in which multiple funding mechanisms are used. But, as in Vietnam, the United States still denies responsibility.
Money as a Weapon System—Afghanistan, a frankly titled 252-page guidebook for US commanders, spells out just how US forces can make payments through the Commanders Emergency Response Program for what are called “condolence and battle damage payments.” According to the 2012 manual, CERP funds are “authorized to be used for payments to individuals in case of death, injury, or battle damage caused by US or coalition military operations,” such as a military vehicle running down a bicyclist during a combat operation in a village. If, however, a vehicle hits a bicyclist during routine travel through a market, victims must file a claim with US representatives under the Foreign Claims Act. Money as a Weapon System goes on to state:
Condolence payments are different from claims and are not an admission of fault by the USG [US government]. It is crucial to remember that when a Commander uses CERP funds, it is not an acknowledgement of any moral or legal responsibility for someone’s death, injury, or damaged property. Condolence payments are symbolic gestures and are not paid to compensate someone for a loss.
Money as a Weapon System also states unequivocally that “CERP condolence payments are not Solatia payments and will not be referred to as such. Solatia payments are made for non-combatant civilian casualties, and come from unit OMA [operation and maintenance] funds as an expression of sympathy and do not necessarily derive from legal responsibility.” The meaning of “non-combatant civilian” is confusing since civilians are, by nature, noncombatants, and if the phrase refers to civilians not wounded in combat, it is not supported by the Army’s official regulations governing solatia payments. These, in fact, make no distinctions between combat and noncombat actions, noting only that, as per local custom, “an individual involved in an incident in which another is injured or killed or property is damaged may, in accordance with local custom, pay solatia to a victim, the victim’s family or another person authorized by the victim (such as a tribal leader) without regard to liability.” Documents examined by The Nation suggest that, in the absence of clear rules about various forms of compensation, military units made up their own on a case-by-case basis.
The compensation records obtained by The Nation contain solatia payments, CERP project reports and other documents, but no breakdowns of the types of payments or tallies of the funds paid out. According to the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon disbursed more than $30 million in condolence payments in Afghanistan and, mainly, Iraq from 2003 through 2006. In 2006, the United States paid out just over $352,000 in solatia and condolence payments in Afghanistan. In response to a request for a complete accounting of yearly solatia payments, military spokesman David Lakin told The Nation that the United States paid out more than $3.7 million in “battle damage repair” to Afghans in 2010. In 2011, that number jumped to nearly $12 million. Lakin did not respond to repeated requests for clarification about the nature of the payments, what types of incidents warranted compensation, and why the payouts tripled in just a year’s time. When The Nation requested figures for 2012 from ISAF headquarters, the spokeswoman, Maj. Lori Hodge, said that available figures were muddled. “I could wade through the numbers to the best of my ability but my numbers would be a guess and most likely inaccurate,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Paying for Pain and Suffering
Although the reparations records fail to capture the scale of human suffering in Afghanistan, they do paint a vivid portrait of the impact of the war on civilians. One 2008 solatia payment request form chronicles a typical example. In the early morning hours of July 17, a US combat outpost in Kunar’s Pesch River Valley came under attack from Saifullah Minah, a village near the base. Troops replied with mortar fire, which slammed into a home, killing a girl, about 12, and her mother, 35. By the time soldiers arrived on the scene, both had been prepared for burial. The Americans agreed to pay the husband/father $3,000 in compensation.
Three days later, another unit received enemy fire from the villages of Matin and Shouryak and responded with four ground-launched missiles. The results of the US counterattack were catastrophic: one civilian dead, fourteen wounded, fifteen homes damaged and thirty-one animals slain. The victims and families received $11,070 in compensation.
On April 4, 2009, members of one US unit decided to test-fire an automatic grenade launcher, lobbing several grenades over a ridge line, which caused serious injury to a 13-year-old boy out collecting firewood. For his pain and suffering, the Americans paid 20,000 afghanis—about $400.
In Paktika Province near a forward operating base, a motorcyclist approached a military convoy and “failed to adhere to verbal warnings and hand and arm signal warnings to stay away,” according to US documents. The man then left his motorbike, walked to the center of the road and knelt down to pray. When he rose, he approached the convoy, causing the Americans to fear he was a suicide bomber; they again issued verbal warnings and hand signals. When that failed to stop him, a gunner fired two pistol shots at the man. As he lay bleeding, the troops came to the conclusion that he was not carrying a bomb and attempted to render first aid. Within minutes, however, he was dead.