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Life Values: How the British Military Calculated the Cost of an Afghan Life

The Ministry of Defence paid out more compensation for property damage in northern Europe than for the death of an Afghan child, reports Murray Jones

A young boy in Helmand, Afghanistan. Photo: timsimages/Alamy

Life Values How the British Military Calculated the Cost of an Afghan Life

The Ministry of Defence paid out more compensation for property damage in northern Europe than for the death of an Afghan child, reports Murray Jones

The British military paid out just £688,000 for the deaths of 289 Afghan civilians, with one family paid as little as £104 for the killing of their loved one, according to new analysis.

Overall, the average compensation for a civilian killed was £2,380. Some of these pay-outs were combined with injuries and property damage, meaning that this average is somewhat inflated.

Of those killed, as many as 84 may have been children, based on reports indicating the youth of the victim. Forty-three of the casualties were women or girls. 

Of the 6,800 compensation payments made between April 2006 and May 2014 – examined by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) – 417 payments were made for 289 civilians killed and 240 injured people for whom the Ministry of Defence (MoD) accepted financial responsibility. 

However, the majority of claims – 69% – were denied, with 881 claims of death and 285 of injury formally turned down by MoD investigators. As a result, only one-quarter of fatality claims received a settlement. 

Details on the MoD’s deliberation process are scarce. In total, around one in three claims of fatality or wounding were deemed worthy of compensation. These figures are likely to be just a snapshot of the reality as they are based on UK military compensation agreements, which was not a simple process for an Afghan civilian to engage with. 

Most of the deaths occurred in the Helmand province of Afghanistan and were recorded in compensation pay-out data obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. British military compensation payments that stated that the Afghan or US military were responsible for the deaths were not included in the above figures.

There were a number of instances where lower pay-outs were made for a death after the British military refused to accept responsibility. These were often referred to as “goodwill payments”. Such pay-outs were not included in the 289 figure. However, they do suggest implicit British military responsibility for the deaths was accepted when the pay-outs did occur.

Of the casualties that the MoD provided compensation for, 71 were recorded as female (43 killed and 28 injured), and at least 28 were confirmed as children (16 killed and 12 injured), although it could be as many as 138 minors (86 killed and 52 injured). 


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Blood and Treasure

The cost to the British military of the war in Afghanistan is well documented: 457 British soldiers’ lives and at least £22.7 billion (2001/2-2019/20). The causes, locations and dates of these deaths were analysed in AOAV’s 2020 report ‘For All Was Lost‘. 

But, when it comes to Afghan civilians, estimates of overall harm or fatalities related to British activity are not recorded by the UK Government. However, because Afghans could claim compensation from the British military for harm done – with levels of harm ranging from a death or injury to property damage – hundreds of fatal incidents have been recorded. 

The amount of detail varies. Little to no description of incidents is given up to March 2009, meaning that the circumstances, age or gender of the nearly 100 civilians killed during this period are unknown.

The compensation data reveals some shocking incidents. In December 2009, for instance, four children were “shot and killed by ISAF [International Security Assistance Force]”. A month later, the MoD paid out the equivalent of £4,223.60 ($6,800) in compensation for their deaths. There is no known reportage of this incident in the English language media. 

That same month, the youngest recorded casualty was killed. He was just three years old. “During IED clearance child was killed by shock from controlled explosion (son 3 years),” the entry reads. 

Consistently Inconsistent

The amounts paid out in compensation by the British military to Afghan civilians were highly inconsistent. One family received just £586.42 for the death of their 10-year-old son in December 2009. In February 2008, a family was given £104.17 for a confirmed fatality and property damage in Helmand province. No more detail was given in the military logs.

On occasion, the system valued electronics and animals more than human life. 

In 2009/10, there were 106 instances involving property – including crops, vehicles and buildings – where the pay-out was greater than the death of the above aforementioned 10-year-old boy. These included:

To produce these figures, AOAV analysed a series of documents from the MoD’s Area Claims Office (ACO), from 2006-14. ACOs are established where there is a sizeable defence presence, from major operations in Helmand and Basra, to bases in Cyprus and the Falklands. 

The Afghanistan unit, made up of two MoD civil servants before being reduced to just one in 2011, alongside a local translator, was permanently based in the Helmand provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. It would rotate into Musa Qala and Sangin. The unit worked alongside the British civilian units supporting the local district governor’s office: the Civil Military Co-Operation (CIMIC) group from the MoD, and the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) of the Foreign Office. 

Serious claims, of death and injury were passed to the UK military’s Directorate of Safety and Claims Public Liability Group (DS&C PLG) for “investigation and adjudication”.

Regional Disparities

When examining compensation payments per territory, the MoD paid out 36% more in the two decades of the ‘War on Terror’ to claims originating in Cyprus than in Afghanistan – £8.44 million compared to £6.18 million. Over just a three-year period, the MoD paid out more in Cyprus – £1.04 million – where the vast majority of claims were for crop or livestock damage, than for 289 civilian deaths in Afghanistan – £688,000.

Payments in north-west Europe since 2001 were more than three times greater than in Afghanistan. In 2009/10, approximately 90% of the £1.17 million paid out was related to vehicle movements in and around Germany. 

Such a difference between total compensation paid to the families of Afghans killed and claims in Europe largely based on property damage raises questions as to the fairness of the UK Government’s compensation payment system based on national currency valuations, local custom, and – potentially – even nationality.

In his 2013 book, Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, former military intelligence officer in Iraq and ‘justice advisor’ in Afghanistan, Frank Ledwidge compared the compensation given to members of the British military under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. From his calculations, he wrote: “It would be fair to say that the lives and limbs of Afghans are assessed in financial terms at between one-twentieth and one-hundredth of those of a British soldier.”

Compensation Without Accountability?

The MoD said in 2014 that “when compensation claims are received they are considered on the basis of whether or not the MoD has a legal liability to pay compensation. When there is a proven legal liability, compensation is paid”.

It confirmed that “the amount of compensation paid is determined by common law principles which, broadly, take account, as appropriate, of an individual’s pain and suffering, degree of injury, property losses, past and future financial losses and level of care required”.

It also said that it would make “ex-gratia payments” – or payments when no liability is admitted – saying that “providing restitution for civilians who have suffered in these circumstances is the right thing to do”.

The MoD was unable to distinguish between ex-gratia payments and those in which legal liability has been proven.

Another MoD document from 2008 explains how the compensation system would “contribute to the effort in winning the consent of the local population”. A compromise, however, was said to be needed between “expectations of the local nationals, who use local custom and religious law to settle damages, and the definition of legal liability practised by the Ministry of Defence in UK civil litigation”.

Due to the sporadic details given, it is only possible to ascertain the cause of harm in 208 (39%) of settled cases listed. Gunfire was the most frequent cause of civilian harm (51%); followed by airstrikes (25%); and explosive ground fire, such as grenades and mortars (22%). 

What is clear is that investigative officers would refuse to pay or downgrade compensation significantly if they disputed that British personnel were at fault. 

A boy, whose age was redacted, was killed in a motorcycle accident involving a military vehicle on a roundabout. The boy’s mother was also injured. The ACO records state: “It was not ISAF fault therefore the assistance payment was abated.” They had asked for the equivalent of £902.

Similarly, ex-gratia payments would be cut in certain instances. An entry for an incident in October 2011 reads: “[Redacted] year-old boy killed by Escalation Of Force (EoF) whist [sic] driving a motobike [sic] at a patrol base. This is a 75% abatement has the boy contibuted [sic] to his own demise.” This decision meant that his family’s compensation was reduced by £1,840.62 to just £613.54.

The detailed explanation on how these figures were reached are published on AOAV’s website. 

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Defence told Byline Times: “Every civilian death is a tragedy and the UK always seeks to minimise the risk of civilian casualties through our rigorous targeting processes, but that risk can never be removed entirely. The amount of compensation paid is determined by legal principles which consider the degree of injury and both past and future losses, settlements also reflect local customs and practice.”

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