What's an Afghan Life Worth? Slain Afghan Villagers' Families Paid $50,000 in Compensation

ByABC News
March 25, 2012, 12:55 PM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 25, 2012 -- In any war, it's one of the hardest questions to ask.

Ten years into the Afghanistan mission, as casualties mount with no real clarity about what victory would look like -- it's a question now more important than ever.

In a country filled with death, what's the price of a single life?

Two weeks ago, up to 17 Afghan villagers were methodically gunned down in the middle of the night in their Panjwaii district village. Most were shot with a single, targeted bullet to the head. Some of the dead, including nine children and three women, were then brought to a room, their clothes torn, and their still-warm bodies set afire.

The U.S. military has charged 38-year-old Staff Sgt. Robert Bales with 17 counts of premeditated murder. If convicted, he could face demotion in rank, dishonourable discharge, loss of salary, and possibly, the death penalty.

In the days that followed the attack, there was a firestorm of questions. We needed to know: Who was the shooter? What could have prompted such a heinous act? Why weren't there more safeguards in place?

Among the questions no one bothered -- or dared -- to ask is the one whose answer is the most troubling. What price could be put on those lost lives?

And today, it seems we have an answer.

Fifty thousand dollars.

Afghan officials tell ABC News that's the price paid by the U.S. military for each victim of the Panjwaii massacre. The transaction reportedly took place on Saturday at the Kandahar governor's office, in the presence of U.S. and Afghan officials, along with tribal elders from the affected villages.

In a statement to ABC News, U.S. Lt. Commander Brian Badura -- as per routine military policy -- would neither confirm nor deny the payment, saying only that individual nations "may participate in some form of restitution consistent with the cultural norms of Afghanistan."

"As the settlement of claims is in most cases a sensitive topic for those who have suffered loss, it is usually a matter of agreement that the terms of the settlement remain confidential," he said.

If the Afghan officials' statements are true, this wouldn't be the first time the United States has offered compensation to victims of U.S. actions in Afghanistan. Two years ago, after a botched night raid by NATO forces led to the death of five Afghan civilians, including at least two pregnant women, a U.S. commander reportedly offered the victims' families $30,000 in compensation.

Under the Foreign Claims Act, the U.S. military is not legally obligated to offer compensation to civilians who are killed or injured during a time of war. Still, the United States has often paid what are known as "combat damages" in regions, like Afghanistan, where compensation is the cultural norm.

The human rights group CIVIC analyzed payments made by the United States to Afghan civilians from 2006 to 2010. Their analysis included interviews with U.S. military personnel, as well as nearly 13,000 pages of claims documented released by the Department of Defense, in 2007 and 2009.

Their results reveal what they consider standard amounts the US doles out per claim. They include: $2,000 for a death, $400 for a serious injury, and $200 for a non-serious injury.

Other NATO members have their own payment formulas. The United Kingdom, for example, once gave out just $210 in compensation for an accidental death, while the Germans once gave $20,000 -- plus a new car -- after three civilians were killed at a checkpoint in 2009.

According to CIVIC, claims of up to $2,500 have to be approved by a lieutenant colonel, up to $5,000 by a colonel, and up to $10,000 by a deputy commanding general. Any claims above that are rare, and believed to require authorization from the highest military authorities.

When the Panjwaii victims met with U.S. officials, they were reportedly told the compensation had been authorized by President Obama himself.

For some, the goal behind these payments is to acknowledge that in the theater of war, mistakes happen, and innocent families need help to recover from the sudden loss of income and security that comes with losing a loved one.

From a military standpoint, some say there's another goal: It's strategic.