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The Destruction of Afghan Lives, Captured in US Dollars

Documents obtained by The Intercept via a FOIA request offer window into death and damage caused by war and occupation

Jon Queally

New reporting by The Intercept published Friday offers a rare window into the death and destruction caused by the U.S. military in Afghanistan since 2001 by reviewing the records of so-called "condolence payments" disbursed to Afghan victims and family members killed or harmed by the ongoing war and military occupation.

As journalist Cora Currier reports:

Many of the payments are for mundane incidents such as traffic accidents or property damage, while others, in flat bureaucratic language, tell of “death of his wife and 2 minor daughters,” “injuries to son’s head, arms, and legs,” “death of husband,” father, uncle, niece.

The databases are incomplete, reflecting fragmented record keeping in Afghanistan, particularly on the issue of harm to civilians. The payments The Intercept has analyzed and presented in the graphic accompanying this story are not a complete accounting, but they do offer a small window into the thousands of fractured lives and personal tragedies that take place during more than a decade of war.

The documents were obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by The Intercept and cover "several years’ worth of recent data." Alongside Currier's reporting, the data was compiled into this digital graphic.

According to Currier's review of the data, "in fiscal years 2011 through 2013, the military made 953 condolence payments totaling $2.7 million. $1.8 million of those were for deaths, and the average payment for a death was $3,426. Payments for injuries averaged $1,557."

However, when the numbers say so little about the true human tragedy involved in countless incidents over more than a decade, The Intercept also offered this devastating and concise accounting of specific, individual incidents that resulted in payouts by the U.S. military:

An armored vehicle ran over a six-year-old boy’s legs: $11,000. A jingle truck was “blown up by mistake”: $15,000. A controlled detonation broke eight windows in a mosque: $106. A boy drowned in an anti-tank ditch: $1,916. A 10-ton truck ran over a cucumber crop: $180. A helicopter “shot bullets hitting and killing seven cows”: $2,253. Destruction of 200 grape vines, 30 mulberry trees and one well: $1,317. A wheelbarrow full of broken mirrors: $4,057.

A child who died in a combat operation: $2,414.

As Currier notes in detail throughout her reporting, the programs that administer the payouts, and the documents themselves, are both imperfect and incomplete. 

According to Jonathan Tracy, a former judge advocate for the military who handled thousands of similar claims in Iraq and reviewed the data compiled by The Intercept, the system he knew was chaotic and left little room for documenting the complete human tragedy represented within each episode of violence.

"Each [entry into the government's database] took maybe 30 seconds to enter," Tracy said. "There wasn’t really room or time to put in a narrative."

 


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