In March 2014, the US military paid an Afghan man just over $1,000 to compensate for killing his civilian son in an operation near the border with Iran, according to U.S. military records released to Reuters. Six months later, another Afghan father was given $10,000 by the U.S. military after his child, also a civilian, was killed in an American-led military operation in the same province. And 68-year-old Haji Allah Dad lost 20 relatives, including his brother and sister-in-law, in a U.S. and Afghan special forces operation near the northern city of Kunduz last November.
Allah Dad said he received no money from the U.S. military, though he did get compensation from the Afghan government. Nearly 16 years since invading Afghanistan, the United States has no standardized process for making compensation payments to the families of thousands of Afghan civilians killed or injured in U.S.-led military operations. It first started paying the families of Afghan victims as a way to counter Taliban militants who were doing the same.
America’s approach to compensation is arbitrary by design as it tries to negotiate Afghanistan’s cultural and regional sensitivities as a foreign military force. But civil activists say the system is unfair and confusing for often poor and uneducated Afghans. A Pentagon spokesman said the military leaves the decision on how much to pay to commanders on the ground because they are best positioned to judge the incidents.
“Condolence payments in Afghanistan are based on cultural norms of the local area, advice from Afghan partners, and the circumstances of the event,” said spokesman Adam Stump. “U.S. commanders in theater are therefore empowered to make decisions regarding payments as they have the greatest understanding of these factors,” Stump said. It is unclear how the U.S. military puts these factors in monetary terms.
Washington started making condolence payments in Afghanistan in 2005 after realizing that the Taliban was gaining influence and goodwill by giving civilians money after fatal U.S. strikes, according to the Center for Civilians in Conflict, a U.S.-based advocacy and research group.
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The United States does not have to pay compensation to civilians killed in its military actions under international and national law. However, it has made such payments going back to the Korean War in the 1950s. In some cases, it paid compensation to the relatives of civilians it killed in the Iraq conflict.
Critics warn the lack of standardization in compensation payments means Afghan civilian victims are not treated equally as the conflict there grinds on. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has said several thousand more troops would be needed to break a stalemate with the Taliban.
“It’s of great concern that we’re talking about stepping up the way that we carry operations without a standard operating procedure for making condolence payments,” said Marla Keenan, senior director of programs at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.
“A man in Kandahar may get $4,000 for his damaged car while a woman in Gardez gets $1,000 for her dead child. Civilians deserve better,” Keenan said.
According to U.S. military documents obtained by Reuters under a Freedom of Information Act request, American forces have paid Afghan families about $1.2 million for the deaths of at least 101 Afghans and injuries to 270 others from the end of 2013 to 2016.
Almost all of the victims were civilians. Five of the payments were to members of the Afghan government, the documents, which have previously not been published, show. The amount of payments, even in apparently similar cases, varies.
“This shows that each unit was setting its own policy and that there’s no standard operating procedure (or even financial guidance) across the military for how to make these payments and how much they should be,” said Keenan.
In Allah Dad’s case, the money came not from the United States but from the Afghan government.
The attack that killed his relatives in Boz, near Kunduz, was the subject of a U.S. military probe, which found in January that 33 civilians were killed and 27 wounded when U.S. and Afghan special forces returned fire against Taliban fighters using civilian houses and called in U.S. air support.
The United States did not make any condolence payments and left it to the Afghan government to decide what it wanted to do, Captain Bill Salvin, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said. It is unclear why.
Mahmoud Danish, a spokesman for governor of Kunduz province, said the Afghan government paid 100,000 Afghanis ($1,500) for each death and 50,000 Afghanis ($750) for each of those wounded.
Allah Dad said the United States should have also taken responsibility for the civilian victims.
“Americans must be accountable for what they did and they have to pay for each and everybody who were killed or wounded in this attack,” said Allah Dad, nine of whose relatives were also wounded. He was forced to leave his job as a teacher and now works on his watermelon and corn fields. “The Afghan government promised to pay for our houses, cars, machinery and livestock but so far, they haven’t.”
When asked about Allah Dad’s case, the Pentagon said it does not comment on specific incidents. The Kunduz local government confirmed Allah Dad’s account of the payments and number of his relatives killed.
“We understand that no amount of money can compensate for the suffering and loss of life,” Salvin said.
One of the most well known instances of condolence payments was after a 2015 U.S. air strike in Kunduz that destroyed a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders which killed 42 people and wounded 37.
The incident received international media coverage and the personal attention of then President Barack Obama.
“The President was personally interested in the Kunduz incident and that is in part why we got interested,” a former senior White House official said, adding that it was rare for senior officials in Washington to get involved in condolence payments in Afghanistan.
For that incident, on average the United States paid $3,000 for those injured and $6,000 for those killed.