KABUL, Afghanistan – I’ve written generally in the last few blogs about the compensation and victim assistance issues that CIVIC analyzed in our recent report. Let’s take a concrete example of the type of harm and redress we’re talking about. A few months ago, I met several families who lost relatives and friends in a July 2008 US airstrike that mistakenly targeted a wedding party in eastern Afghanistan. Forty-seven were killed, the vast majority women and children. Those visiting the site a few days after the incident described a road scorched and pocked with craters, body parts and bits of wedding veil mixed into the rubble.
In the immediate aftermath of the strike, US officials denied any civilian deaths and to this day have never provided the community with an apology or recognition. Communities across Afghanistan heard about the incident and the lack of US follow-up or recognition, generating widespread anger that those who came to Afghanistan promising peace and help killed so many innocent civilians without even a token of respect. An elderly man from the community told me, “People believe ISAF just pours salt in the wound, because of how they acted. People are angry because no representative from ISAF came to see what happened, to apologize that it was a mistake.” One teenage boy who lost his 16-year-old sister in the strike said, “I feel bad and angry when I see international soldiers. I thought that they were coming to help and bring peace but they aren’t paying attention to civilians.”
The irony is that the tools necessary to do right by these families were already there. Most international military forces in Afghanistan – the US included – have non-legally binding slush funds for providing civilians with recognition and help when they are harmed. The United Kingdom gave an estimated £700,000 between April 2006 and October 2008; the U.S. obligated more than $876,137 for troops in the eastern region of Afghanistan between January 2006 and November 2008; Canadian troops paid approximately $243,000 from 2005 to 2008. The Afghan government fund paid in excess of $5 million to victims or their families in 2007.
Sadly, in Afghanistan, good intentions (or at least sound allocations of funding) have been weighed down by liability concerns, bureaucracy, lack of coordination, and lack of initiative. I interviewed 143 civilians for our latest CIVIC report, and only a handful had received any of these compensation or ex gratia payments. Most international troops expect Afghans to come to them when an incident happens. But while troops say they have an “open door” to Afghan civilians, Afghans find that door is barricaded by barbed wire and heavily armed, hostile men. Most troops have funds to give, but there is no common policy among the international forces and no mechanisms for forwarding claims among the 41 different partners of the NATO mission there. So unless an affected family can identify which troops were involved and bring the claim to those troops directly, they have no chance of getting any answers, any help.
The bottom line is that it’s not enough to just fund a compensation mechanism: we need to own it. It’s true, no amount of compensation will bring back a loved one. By the same token, no amount of military or development spending will persuade the Afghan people to support military “outsiders” who treat the deaths of their families, friends and neighbors without recognition or compensation.