Winnipeg Free Press, April 16, 2010
‘Blood money’ angers Afghans
'Afghans don't sell the blood of their martyrs, they either take swift revenge or bide their time'
By: Habiburrahman Ibrahimi
The Age (Apr. 14, 2010): Afghans burned tyres and chanted ''Death to America'' after US troops fired on a civilian bus near Kandahar, killing four people and wounding more than a dozen. ''The Americans are constantly killing our civilians and the government is not demanding an explanation,'' protester Mohammad Razaq said.
The system by which Afghans and their families are compensated if they are injured in an American military attack has increasingly become a source of outrage among Afghans who say they feel a price is being put on their lives.
The practice has come under particular criticism since the major U.S. offensive in Helmand province.
According to published reports, American military commanders are authorized to pay between $1,500 and $2,500 to a family that has lost a child or an adult. The loss of a limb or other injury is worth between $600 and $1,500; a damaged or destroyed vehicle, $500 to $2,500; damage to a farmer's fields is worth between $50 and $250.
While such amounts are sizeable in a country where the average daily wage is less than $5 a day, politicians, human-rights groups and ordinary citizens have expressed outrage at the policy.
"Afghans must seem like animals to the Americans if they can put prices on them," said Ismail, a 55-year-old Afghan businessman in Kabul.
"If someone killed an American and offered to pay $10,000, would they accept it?" he asked. "They destroy a complete village if one of their soldiers is killed, but set a price of $2,500 for an Afghan's life."
"They do not respect the traditions, customs and laws of the Afghan people," said Haidar Jan Nayimzoi, a member of the Afghan parliament. "An Afghan never sells his blood for money ... By paying money the Americans will not receive support but rather turn people against them."
American officials defended the practice. These are "payments of money or donations in kind made to a victim or victim's family as an expression of sympathy," said military spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician. "There is no official 'price list' to cover payments to people or families who have suffered loss or injury as a result of action by coalition forces," he said.
Commanders are not legally obliged to make the payments and victims who receive such payments are still eligible to file formal claims for compensation, he said.
The issue of compensation is likely to become more intense as the United States steps up its military operations this year.
Last year, the United Nations estimated that 2,412 civilians died in the conflict, the highest number since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001. It said coalition forces were responsible for approximately one-quarter of those deaths.
On Monday, U.S. troops fired on a civilian bus near Kandahar, killing four people and wounding more than a dozen.
Such incidents have prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to demand that international security forces do more to safeguard civilian lives.
The Afghan president has been reluctant to criticize such payments, however.
Presidential spokesman Siamak Herawi said that the money paid out was a form of humanitarian aid and that Karzai had recently discussed the issue with U.S. President Barack Obama.
"President Obama and President Karzai have accepted this issue in principle and hope action will be taken soon and that the assistance will be increased," Herawi said.
But critics said that even if well intentioned, the informal cash system sends the wrong message and clashes with traditional Afghan values.
"If the Americans really want to provide such assistance they should do it through the Afghan government," said Lalgol, the head of the Afghan Human Rights Organization, who like many Afghans goes by one name.
Abdol Ghani, a 27-year old resident of Kandahar, said his brother died in Wardak province while riding on a bus that came under U.S. fire.
"The Americans came to our home three days later and wanted to pay us money but my father forced them out of the house with their dollars. Afghans don't sell the blood of their martyrs, they either take swift revenge or bide their time," he said.
The sensitivity of the issue has not been lost on the Taliban, who say the payments are evidence of a broader failure.
"The Americans want to hide their defeat by resorting to such things. They will try anything," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mojahed said.
One resident of Helmand province had his own radical suggestion for what would be appropriate American reparations.
"If two Americans are executed by the Afghan government for killing civilians, the people will not only trust the government, but also the Americans will be so cautious in their operations that they will not kill even an ant," he suggested.
Habiburrahman Ibrahimi is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2010 A14
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