Culture

Afghan payoff: Catch-22

Robert Bales
Robert Bales
Robert Bales is the Army sergeant accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians, including 9 children, during a methodical rampage on March 11, 2012, that threatened to undermine the American military mission in Afghanistan. | Photo: | Robert Bales, Afghanistan, Army, Kandahar, Massacre,

Is $860,000 to the families of Afghan victims meaningful?

The killing of 17 civilians in Afghanistan this month was a tragedy, one that I believe underscores the need to bring our troops home. Staff Sargent Robert Bales, who allegedly committed the act, had served three tours in Iraq before he was sent to Afghanistan. Given the circumstances of the shootings, it's rather clear that the US military used Sgt. Bales until he snapped. Bales has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, but according to Bales's lawyer, the government will have a difficult time proving their case.

But one aspect of the incident that has mostly gone under the radar is the US government's offer to pay $860,000 to the victims' families. It's always controversial trying to put a dollar amount on a person's life, but $860,000 is a lot of money to a family in a small village in Afghanistan...and if the US government were offering $860,000 per victim, that might be okay, but as it turns out, it's $860,000 total. That's $50,000 for the family of each person who was killed, and $10,000 for each person who was wounded.

That seems like a pretty small amount to offer as compensation, especially in light of the fact that it is pretty clear that the US military carries a large share of the blame for the actions of this...but in a nation like Afghanistan, where it seems that the enemy will not be defeated no matter how long our troops are in-theater, we are pretty much damned if we do, damned if we don't when it comes to compensation for civilian victims.

But there is another aspect at play here: there are some rumors spreading that they payoff is not compensation after all, but is instead a payoff. According to Gawker, there is legal precedent in Afghanistan for "blood money" to replace a trial or punishment ' a convenient way for the US military minimize the repercussions of bringing Sgt. Bales back to the United States for trial.

I guess, from a purely fiscally responsible perspective, it's a good thing that the government only paid $860,000, instead of throwing down a couple million per victim - after all, it's pretty clear by now that America has lost the "hearts and minds" battle in Afghanistan. After all of the years we have spent trying to reform that nation, all we've really done is to learn the same lesson the Soviet Union learned a few decades ago.

In the end, it's all a matter of context. As compensation for the deaths of family members, $50,000 is a paltry amount and, coming from one of the richest nations on earth, an insult to the victims' families. As "blood money" used to buy the right to bring Sgt. Bales back to the US for trial, it is money well spent ' it wasn't that long ago that Afghanistan went through weeks of violence and riots when it came out that a couple of copies of the Koran were accidentally thrown in the garbage. In the battle of public perception, we are losing both in Afghanistan and here at home, and putting an American soldier through a public trial in Afghanistan is a public relations boondoggle that America does not need right now.

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Updated May 6, 2017 6:00 AM EDT | More details

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