The family of two young Afghan brothers killed in a mission involving Australian troops is likely to receive less than $2000 in compensation. But that figure is appropriate for Afghan culture and similar to other compensation paid, experts tell Crikey.

Last week the brothers — both under seven — were mistaken for Taliban insurgents while collecting firewood and caring for their animals and were shot. The incident is still being investigated, although the Australian Defence Force and the International Security Assistance Force apologised for their deaths and Defence Minister Stephen Smith says the family will receive compensation. Smith told ABC’s 7.30 last night:

“Generally, and you need to examine the facts and circumstances of each case, but generally, given Afghanistan’s circumstances and economy, we’re talking in the hundreds rather than in the thousands.”

But does putting a figure of just a few hundred dollars for the life of a young boy mean we’re undervaluing it? “We’re working out what value life has in Afghanistan to work out the appropriate thing to do,” said David Olney, associate lecturer in politics at the University of Adelaide. “It’s important to not to conflate what we think life is worth here in Australia and what life is worth for the Afghanis.”

Over $120,000 has been paid since the Tactical Payments Scheme was introduced in 2009 to compensate “collateral damage to property, injury, or loss of life” caused by Australian Defence Force missions. In 2011-12, 1041 individual payments totalling $44,877 were made under the scheme. In 2010-11, 671 individual payments totalling $39,183 were paid. In 2009-10, 63 transactional payments totalling $36,933 were paid, representing 125 individual payments.

Due to “operational sensitivity and privacy requirements”, details of individual payments — such as the details of the incident and the exact amount made — are not made public by the Department of Defence and they do not release them

“Disclosure of individual payment details would jeopardise mission accomplishment and compromise force protection, given the fragile social environment in Afghanistan. It would also have the propensity to create a local economy with false claims or contrived incidents and unrealistic expectations on maximum payments,” a Defence spokesperson told Crikey.

The compensation scheme was introduced through a defence legislation amendment bill. Among the legal jargon, the purpose of the scheme is spelt out clearly:

“The scheme acknowledges that, in many areas in which the ADF operates financial compensation for collateral damage to property, injury, or loss of life is often a common expectation of local cultures. Recognition and respect for such customs is vital in building relationships with local communities, and enhances the safety and security of our deployed ADF personnel.”

That’s not just making excuses. “It is entirely normal in Afghanistan to pay compensation,” Olney told Crikey. “It’s a form of conflict resolution to stop things turning into multi-generational grudges.”

Monetary compensation for death or injuries is not unusual in many Muslim countries and have been common throughout the decade-long war in Afghanistan.

German troops paid US$5000 per person killed in a 2009 airstrike incident in Kunduz province, where more than a 100 people died (although survivors and families of victims launched a class action claim last year for USD $4.4 million in damages).

In 2010 UK forces paid £1.3 million ($1.9 million AUD in today’s exchange rate) in compensation payments for the year. That includes £542 ($800) for a girl killed in a fire.

However, compensation payouts by the UK Ministry of Defence were significantly lower in 2011 ($750,000) and 2012 (until November, $790,000). The department no longer gives details of the individual payment of each case, although assuming the biggest payment in 2012 was given for a family of six killed by a rocket ($30,000), that equates to $5000 per family member.

Essentially, compensation payments are just balancing the needs of the Afghan people with the nature of warfare, says Olney. “It’s not ‘an Australian did a dastardly thing’. They [Australian troops] did their job, there was a terrible accident and we cleaned up the best we could, meeting the cultural expectations of the culture we were in,” he said. “It’s very standard culturally appropriate behaviour.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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