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U.S. pays Afghan villagers for killings

In a picture taken on Sept. 30, 2011 Afghan villagers look on as a U.S. soldier from HHB 3-7 Field Artillery Regiment 3rd Bct 25th ID walks past during a mission in Turkham Nangarhar, bordering Pakistan. The U.S. government regularly pays families for civilian deaths in combat.

Nancy Marshall-Genzer:  Congress has rules for these condolence payments.   First established when  a U.S. service member killed  a German civilian.  After World War Two.  That’s when Congress passed the Foreign Claims Act.  Which covers payments for civilian deaths outside of combat.  If civilians are killed in combat, US commanders can dip into slush funds.  Set up by Congress during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Sarah Holewinski heads the group, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.  She says we’re making more condolence payments now than ever.   Partly because they’re an ingrained part of Iraqi and Afghan culture.   When Iraqis make these payments among themselves, they call them blood money.

Sarah Holewinski:  Blood money is -- it’s almost a peace negotiation.  OK -- now we’ve settled it.  We’re fine.  We’re moving on with our lives.

But the condolence payments are just a way for the U.S. to say sorry.  And there’s no guarantee of forgiveness. 

Todd Harrison is with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.  He says the U.S. is not saying that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is guilty of the shootings.

Todd Harrison:  Because that could jeopardize the trial.  If the US government is, on one hand, admitting our person did this and, on the other hand, trying to give the person a fair trial to determine whether or not they did it.

It’s not clear how the U.S. military decides what a fair payment is.  The norm for a civilian death in Iraq or Afghanistan is about $2,500.  So the $50,000 settlements in Afghanistan are way above average. 

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Lawrence Korb:  I think it was high because of the atrocities and the scope of this.

The Pentagon isn’t saying how the money was handed out.  Sarah Holewinski says the Afghan civilians probably got cash.  And not U.S. dollars.  But stacks of  local currency. 

Sarah Holewinski:  I would suspect it would take a truck to get it over to the families.  There must have been a more discrete way  that the U.S. military did this.

But the Pentagon won’t give details.  Or say what it’s spent on these  payments.  Holewinski only knows of one estimate from about six years ago.  When the inspector general for Iraq reported we were spending about $14 million a year in condolence money. 

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall-Genzer for Marketplace.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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