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Postmedia News, October 24, 2010

Military investigating claims troops destroyed Afghan homes

“The Canadians subsequently moved in with bulldozers and demolished his farm and more than 600 of his vines,”

By Matthew Fisher

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The Canadian military has launched an investigation into claims by an Afghan farmer that troops “totally destroyed” as many as 10 mud-walled homes three years ago in a hamlet in the Horn of Panjwaii in order to protect a small firebase.

Soldiers with the Canadian Army's 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, conduct a joint patrol with Afghan Army troops through the village of Bazaar e Panjwaii, in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province August 10, 2010. (Photo: Bob Strong/Reuters)

In a recent article, the New York Times said that when Canadians “immediately came under fire from insurgents,” after establishing the base, in Lora in western Panjwaii, “they bulldozed much of the hamlet, flattening houses, water pumps and surrounding orchards.”

Canadian officials, while admitting there may have been some damage in the area, questioned the extent that was described in the report.

“It is possible that some damage to property did occur while preparing various sites in Panjwaii for a series of four police substations in 2007,” the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command said in a written response to questions.

“However, we were unable to account for an incident that mirrors the extent of damage discussed in the New York Times article.”

CEFCOM added that “after further investigation, it may be possible that in order to enhance the force protection of one of the police substations . . . land may have been cleared and some buildings may have been damaged.”

The allegations were made to the Times last week by Abdul Hamid. Mr. Hamid said the Canadians had accepted his compensation claim through the district governor’s office for the losses he had suffered, but that the money never reached him.

“The Canadians subsequently moved in with bulldozers and demolished his farm and more than 600 of his vines,” the Times said. There were further allegations that two nearby hamlets were also destroyed, the article said.

CEFCOM offered a different version of events.

“His claim was turned down because we could not confirm that the damages he claimed were caused by CF operations,” CEFCOM said.

CEFCOM, which is responsible for all Canadian forces overseas, said it could confirm that “a grape farmer named Abdul Hamid from Zangabad in Panjwaii made a claim in December, 2009 relating to the destruction of his farmland.”

It is not normal practice to disclose the names of Afghans seeking compensation — a measure meant to protect them from intimidation by insurgents — but the Canadians said they were making an exception, as Mr. Hamid had provided his name to the Times.

A butcher told the Times that a claim for compensation on behalf of residents of a neighbouring hamlet had also been made to the Canadian Forces through Afghan officials, but that they had never received a response to their demand for reparations.

Without saying what compensation had specifically been paid out or where, CEFCOM wrote that its records “indicated that a number of claims were made and paid out in 2008 in an attempt to compensate the local population for damage or injury to person or property.” But it once again stated that “the extent of damage alleged in the New York Times,” was greater than what had occurred.

Nevertheless, since the Times “brought these allegations to light, the matter is under further investigation,” CEFCOM said.

It said Task Force Kandahar will decide whether any Canadian soldiers will be sent to Lora to address the allegations.

One of the complicating factors regarding what happened at Lora, which is now largely deserted, according to the Times, is that the Horn of Panjwaii had largely been under Taliban control for nearly two years until a joint Afghan-NATO operation recaptured much of it last week. Another problem is that the Taliban has long been known to strongly discourage locals from making compensation claims to NATO forces. Furthermore, Afghans often use several different names for the same place.

“Finding an explicit reference to a hamlet called Lora has eluded us all,” Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson, commander of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan in 2008, said in an email from Ottawa.

“Nevertheless, there are sufficient clues which could place it within a few kilometres of the village of Haji Sultan Mohammed Khan on the Arghandab River where we assisted the Afghan National Police to make improvements to a very austere platoon house that was already erected and came to be known as Police Substation (PSS) Haji.”

Three of four police substations, which were built or improved in 2007, were subsequently dismantled in the summer and fall of 2008, the general said.

“That decision was made after great deliberation and was related directly to our thinness on the ground provincewide.”

The battle group was led for much of 2007 by 3 Royal 22nd Regiment and by the summer and fall of 2008 by troops from the 2 Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

While acknowledging, as CEFCOM had, that some damage to property may have occurred, Thompson said, “To be clear, though, we’re talking about single compounds and not entire hamlets. I know you appreciate that we do everything in our power to ensure our operations have a minimal impact on civilians and their property. . . . When incidents occur due to combat operations and a claim is brought to our attention, the request for compensation is thoroughly and expeditiously investigated.”

One of the challenges when paying compensation to Afghan civilians is the difficulty in “identifying the rightful landowner, which is complicated due to the nature of the ongoing conflict and the consequential migration trends between Kandahar City and outlying districts,” CEFCOM said.

By agreement with the Afghan government, NATO troops serving with its International Security Assistance Force are not liable for damages to civilian or government property, CEFCOM said.

“It is for this reason that claims for damage, injury or loss of life are dealt with by the Canadian Forces on an ex-gratia basis,” CEFCOM said. This means any payments were made without recognizing any legal liability.

Between 2005-06 and 2008-09, the total of payments made by Canada to Afghans for loss of life and damage to personal property was $450,094, according to Task Force Kandahar’s legal office.

There were 53 payments made during 2007-09 for between $100 and $24,000.

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