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Originally published Friday, February 19, 2010 at 2:53 AM

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US compensates Afghans for death, damage from war

The fallout of war has a price in southern Afghanistan.

Associated Press Writer

BADULA QULP, Afghanistan —

The fallout of war has a price in southern Afghanistan.

U.S. Army units fighting the Taliban in Helmand province have a compensation system for any death, injury or damage to crops and buildings caused by American forces to Afghan civilians and their property.

The suffering of a population caught between combatants during the Afghan war is a politically sensitive issue, and NATO troops have sought to make amends for deadly airstrikes and other instances in which civilians were killed.

In turn, they accuse insurgents of using civilians as human shields, making it harder to distinguish between enemies and innocents. Financial compensation in desperately poor Afghanistan is at least one way to alleviate distress and show good intentions, military commanders say.

The American units carry a list that gives guidance on payouts:

The death of a child or adult is worth $1,500-$2,500, loss of limb and other injuries $600-$1,500, a damaged or destroyed vehicle $500-$2,500, and damage to a farmer's fields $50-$250.

The system is also useful for gathering intelligence on insurgents, says 1st Sgt. Gene Hicks of Tacoma, Washington.

The military pays villagers in local currency for information about the location of roadside bombs as well as "where they've seen people at, where they've seen people moving, where they've seen people shooting from," Hicks said.

His Alpha Company of 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade has paid out nearly $500 so far, though they also have yet to compensate landowners for compounds they have occupied and turned into patrol bases. They have not had to pay any "condolence" payments for injury or loss of life.

One Afghan landowner stands to reap a windfall because his compound has been occupied by British, Canadian and American troops.

"They've all used the same compound," Hicks said. "So he gets his money from whoever's occupying his compound at the time."

It's not an exact science, but some Afghan civilians in the area of Badula Qulp, northeast of the contested Taliban stronghold of Marjah, have been quick to exploit it. In any casualty case, the Americans are mindful that they might be asked to compensate for the death of an insurgent, rather than a civilian.

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"It's really kind of hard," Hicks said. "You have to determine whether the guy was a good guy or a bad guy. It's a benefit of the doubt kind of thing."

A few days ago, a company with the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment got into a firefight with the Taliban, and a helicopter destroyed a mosque from where troops had received fire. The 15-year-old son of the local religious figure died in the air strike; the U.S. military agreed to pay compensation in a meeting with village leaders, though commanders privately speculated that the son might have been a combatant.

At that meeting, one of the elders initially objected to the idea of putting a price on someone's death, or damage to a holy religious site. By the end of the meeting, the elders seemed content with the idea of a payout.

The compensation process requires completed claim forms, and is sometimes complicated by the fact that many villagers don't know how to write and can't sign their names. In that event, soldiers take their fingerprint on the document or photograph them with the form.

During a mission in neighboring Kandahar province, Alpha Company once ran into an enterprising man who showed them where to find a roadside bomb that could have caused serious damage to one of their Stryker infantry carriers. The man wouldn't settle for a few hundred dollars; he wanted the amount of the armored vehicle that had possibly been saved from destruction - a cool $2 million or more.

He didn't get it.

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