LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The description in a single box of a spreadsheet is brief and to the point: “We shot into a crowd and killed a lady’s son.”
Next to it stands an amount: $1,000.
The entry from October 2007 detailing an incident in Kabul covers one of hundreds of “condolence payments” paid to Afghans by U.S.-led forces for deaths, injuries and property damage, described in leaked military spreadsheets.
The sheets document some $4 billion in spending on a military-backed scheme, the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, intended to win over ordinary Afghans with reconstruction projects that improve local communities and provide jobs.
The bulk of the money goes on transport and building projects, although the sheets include entries as diverse as $91,000 for riot batons and almost $6,000 for scout uniforms. But commanders also use the fund to pay for harm done by U.S. troops or their allies – from deaths in botched air strikes to crops damaged by military vehicles.
Thomson Reuters Foundation has analysed these condolence payments, which offer a rare, detailed line-by-line insight into a key period of the war, as part of a project to explore how nations and organisations try to put a monetary value on life and limb.
Covering some 19,000 rows of data, the sheets appear complete for the years 2008 to 2010, when the United States was ramping up its war against the Taliban with thousands of extra troops. Leaked to the website publicintelligence.info, the files also include some entries going back through 2003 and as recent as 2011.
The Department of Defense did not respond to requests by time of publication to comment on the documents, although a special advisor in its freedom of information office said by email the spreadsheets appeared to be leaked.
They list some $1 million paid to Afghans for deaths, injuries and property damage during the period. Additional amounts were paid from $10 million in funds withdrawn in bulk and used for multiple purposes including condolence payments, but no breakdown of these payments was shown.
The average sum for an Afghan life was $2,500 while the most frequent was $2,000, according to the Foundation’s analysis.
But the data present some jarring contrasts. Sometimes Afghans received as much for a dead animal or the destruction of a vehicle as they got for the loss of a loved one.
A man in Kunar province received $2,500 in 2008 for a cow “that got caught in crossfire and razor wire”. Another got $800 for the loss of a camel. A farmer in the eastern province of Laghman received $2,640 after a stray missile killed two cows and 10 chickens.
In 2010 in Kabul, a payment of $2,500 was made to the owner of a Toyota Hiace van after it was fired upon by an armoured military vehicle “driven by U.S. or Coalition Forces”.
The payout of $2,500 represented roughly three times the average annual income for an Afghan in the 2008 to 2010 period, based on International Monetary Fund estimates of GDP per capita figures adjusted for cost of living and inflation. The U.S. military continues to use $2,500 as a guideline for a civilian death, although the increase in salaries and rising cost of living mean that its value today has slipped to represent about twice the average Afghan income.
Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert who has served as the European Union’s deputy special representative in the country, said this money would not go far even in a rural area. In Afghan culture, a brother would be obliged to support the widow and children of a dead family member who was head of household.
“I know lots of families where the main economically active person is having to support 15 people because he has brought in one or two widows and their children,” said Semple, a visiting professor at Queen’s University in Belfast.
“So in that context, if you get a few thousand dollars from the DoD (U.S. Department of Defense), then frankly it helps you pay for the funeral expenses and maybe sees you through the first month. But for the rest of their lives, the people who are left behind depend on brothers and uncles and fathers.”
The leaked data show the highest payment for a civilian death was $4,700 to the family of an interpreter killed on a military base in Khost province in September 2008. The lowest was $1,000 to a woman in Kabul in September 2007 for the killing of her son.
In one case U.S. forces paid $4,500 to two men after seven relatives were killed in an air strike in Helmand in August 2010.
NO OBLIGATION TO PAY
The United States is in the process of withdrawing most of its troops from Afghanistan after 12 years of fighting Taliban insurgents, although it will keep a force of 9,800 there next year and will remain the country's biggest foreign donor.
In the three years covered by the leaked data, more than 7,300 civilians were killed in Afghanistan. Around two thirds of the deaths were caused by insurgents, one quarter by pro-government Afghan security forces and international troops and the remainder were unexplained, according to the United Nations mission in the country.
Military forces are under no legal obligation to pay civilians for any harm caused by combat operations, according to experts in international law. But they sometimes make payments, even while not admitting legal liability, in recognition of local customs. The U.S. military initially ruled there was no such practise but reversed course in face of anger from the families of civilians killed in botched air raids, crossfire and at border checkpoints.
The payments are not classed as compensation but are meant to recognise the grief of a family, wounds of a civilian or damage to property.
The Pentagon says U.S. and other contingents in the NATO-led force in Afghanistan take local circumstances into account when deciding how much to pay out.
“Commanders consider the severity of injury or type of damage, cost of living in the local community, and any other applicable cultural considerations,” said U.S. Navy Commander Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
“We have found that working through community elders or local contacts to determine fair damage amounts defuses community tensions, reinforces the authority and legitimacy of local elders, and establishes a stronger relationship between the Troop Contributing Nation and local government officials,” she said via email.
((Editing by Andrew Gray and Stella Dawson))