In Defense of Blood Money

Why the United States was right to give $50,000 each to the families of villagers massacred in Afghanistan.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly killed 17 Afghan civilians. Should the U.S. government pay the families?

Photograph by EPA/Spc. Ryan Hallock/DVIDS/Handout.

There’s no price you can pay to make up for the loss of a loved one. That’s as true in Afghanistan as it is in the United States. It’s understandable, then, that some people in both countries found it insulting that the U.S. government reportedly gave $50,000 each to the families of the 17 villagers allegedly slain by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales earlier this month. “The villagers aren’t like animals that you can buy,” an unnamed Afghan official told ABC News. “Yes, it’s a lot of money. But their children are not coming back.”

No, they aren’t. And money is not a substitute for justice. But payments to the families of murder victims are nothing new in Afghanistan. In tribal regions where the rule of law is weak, it’s common practice when someone is killed for tribal elders to hash out how to deal with the crime. Often the resolution involves some combination of apologies, promises to punish the perpetrator, and cash. Sometimes this “blood money” is justified in terms of Islamic law. In Afghanistan, though, it’s often just a way to keep the peace in a lawless land.

The United States, for its part, has been offering “condolence payments” to civilian victims of its combat operations for years. The military won’t talk much about the practice, but documents obtained by the ACLU and the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC, show that the standard sum is $2,500. It’s not exactly blood money; the United States makes no admission of wrongdoing in cases where the victims are considered collateral damage, and the payment isn’t meant to reflect the full value of the life lost. Still, the amount of the payment is inevitably interpreted as a reflection of the extent to which the United States acknowledges harm done—and the extent to which it cares about that harm.

As I wrote in a 2010 Slate piece, the payments took on new significance for the military when it shifted to a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while the process was apparently standardized and streamlined to reflect the new emphasis on winning civilian hearts and minds, the amount of the payments hardly budged—until recently. Sarah Holewinski, CIVIC’s executive director, tells me that while the compensation process remains opaque, her organization has noticed higher payments in response to some recent, well-publicized civilian deaths. The payments in the Bales case may be the highest yet—20 times the normal amount. Why?

The larger sum reflects “the scope and significance of the case,” say anonymous U.S. officials cited in the Los Angeles Times. That sounds partly right. The killing spree made big news, for good reason. Not only was the number of deaths large, but many of the victims were women and children. And of course, murder is not the same as collateral damage. Even if Bales acted out of mental anguish or derangement, the United States has to assure Afghans it won’t treat such vicious crimes lightly.

But the United States’ increased efforts to head off outrage may also reflect something deeper: A recognition that the operation in Afghanistan is on the verge of unraveling, just as President Obama is preparing to reduce troop levels.

The timing of the rampage could hardly have been worse. It came on the heels of reports that U.S. soldiers incinerated copies of the Quran, an affront that triggered condemnation and riots across Afghanistan. It also came as the United States’ relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai became increasingly strained and as peace talks with Taliban leaders appear to have hit a wall. And ironically, the massacre came at the end of a three-month period in which civilian casualties inflicted by the United States and allied forces are down 60 to 70 percent from the same time last year, according to a recent talk by Marine Gen. John Allen at the Brookings Institution. A murder spree will overshadow a promising statistic like that.

In short, the United States may have increased its cash payments because it’s in a position of weakness in Afghanistan and it cannot afford to let things get any worse. If so, it’s not a bad move. The $850,000 handed out to the victims’ families is a microscopic price to pay if it cools, even slightly, the outrage and resentment that fuel the insurgency. But given that U.S. forces have been so stingy with condolence payments in the past, some Afghans might well see the large sums for what they are: a sign of desperation, not compassion.

As CIVIC and others have pointed out, the heretofore standard $2,500 payments struck many Afghan families as a bit meager. While a check of that size goes a lot further in Afghanistan than it does stateside—$2,500 is around what members of Afghanistan’s middle class, such as teachers and police officers, earn in a year—it’s a pittance compared to what the families of American victims have received in cases such as the Virginia Tech shooting ($100,000 each, plus health benefits) or the Sept. 11 attacks (upward of $1 million).

Americans may see a bright line between intentional killings by a rogue officer and the tens of thousands of other civilian deaths the U.S. campaign has caused, but the families of both categories of victims are more or less equally aggrieved. As MIT researcher John Tirman has pointed out, U.S. citizens, politicians, military officials, and the media have a long history of ignoring the civilian casualties of the country’s wars. That indifference is not lost on Afghans.

The counterinsurgency strategy, which makes protection of civilians an explicit goal, may have helped (belatedly) in changing some perceptions. And while Republicans have blasted President Obama for apologizing for American missteps, including the Quran burnings, such public acknowledgments by the commander in chief go a long way as well. What Afghans want most of all is not money or apologies, but for Bales to face justice. Without a trial, the condolence payments do become blood money, in the worst sense; see the case of former CIA contractor Raymond Davis, whom Pakistan grudgingly released only after the United States forked over $2.3 million to the families of his two victims. Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani government official and a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., notes that such payments not only fail to defuse resentment, but undermine the rule of law.

Bales, by contrast, will face murder charges in the United States. Though Obama can’t (and shouldn’t) control how that process unfolds, it’s possible that he’ll get the death penalty. In the meantime, a shift toward higher condolence payments is the best hope to defuse the tension in Afghanistan. It just would have been even more welcome 10 years ago.