Compensation for Afghan Civilians is Much More than Money

05/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Chris Rogers Human rights lawyer, Open Society Foundations

Fruit tree, $60. Cow, $300. Serious injury, $1,500. These are typical compensation amounts some international troops offer to civilians harmed by their operations in Afghanistan. Such calculations seem cold and reading reports on compensation in the Marjah operation, one might think its not much different than haggling over shoes in a bazaar.

However, compensation is more than a financial transaction. The money is much needed as families struggle to cope with tragedy. And military leaders are learning that the money is often not as important as the recognition of a loss.

I just got back from Paktia in the southeast where I talked with US soldiers who provided compensation or 'condolence' payments (so called because they don't imply any legal liability). In one case, an artillery shell missed its target, fell next to a family's house and caused significant damage. US forces immediately called the local subgovernor and elders. They also dispatched Afghan police to the scene. After discussions, compensation was paid. Though the compensation was important, the effort and concern of the soldiers made an even stronger impression. The Afghan family even expressed concern for the soldiers, remarking that they had risked too much in coming to their remote home. "In terms of information operations, we count that as win," the local commander told me.

In this case, as in most others, the good will created extended beyond the family compensated. Elders and government officials were central to verifying information and mediating between international forces and civilians. The process itself built trust and confidence between local leaders, communities, and the military.

In another incident, a US soldier accidentally killed a 13 year old boy during a training exercise. Angry and in anguish, the father was convinced his son was shot intentionally. The soldiers went to great length to explain what happened, even drawing up storyboards and diagrams to assure the father his son was killed accidentally. He eventually accepted their explanation and apology, but the commander told me that the money was "irrelevant." Understandably, the father wanted answers -- to know why he had lost his son -- and for those responsible to acknowledge his loss.

The bargaining and cold calculation of compensation may be unfamiliar and even unsettling to many of us. But for Afghans, it is part of their traditional culture and crucial in a world without courtrooms and little certainty about the future. And in many cases, the money is secondary to what the payment and negotiation represent: recognition, a restoration of dignity, a chance to understand why, and help in finding closure.