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Hearts, minds and dollars: Condolence payments in the Drone Strike Age
The Drone War series » ProPublica’s Cora Currier takes a look at what happens when innocent civilians are killed in drone strikes?


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In 2006, soldiers fired on a taxi that did not slow down at a military checkpoint in Iraq, killing a woman inside. The military determined the checkpoint wasn’t adequately marked, and her family received a large payment, of $7,500.

"It’s hard to digest that the value of a human life is a few thousand dollars," said Gordon-Bray, the general in Iraq. "But you know that in their economic situation, it is the equivalent of much more, and you feel better."

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Today in Afghanistan, according to a Pentagon spokesman, condolence payments can be up to $5,000 for a death or injury, or $5,000 for property damage. Greater amounts can be approved in certain cases. In fiscal year 2012, the U.S. made 219 payments, totaling $891,000, according to a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (Solatia are not included in those figures.)

"The people we meet don’t talk about the money so much as how they felt when they shook someone’s hand—the recognition," said Erica Gaston, a senior program officer for the United States Institute for Peace, who works on Afghanistan issues.

According to Gaston and other advocates, it wasn’t until 2008 that payments became commonplace among U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, as part of a new emphasis on counterinsurgency.

Marla Keenan, managing director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said that that year saw a "strategic shift to ‘hearts and minds,’ which started to change the way commanders viewed condolence payments. It was a tool they could use to deal with populations."

In 2007, General David Petraeus, then head of U.S. forces in Iraq, described the tactical element of condolence payments: "The quicker you can do it, the more responsive you can seem to be…the more concerned you are, the more valuable it is, and the more helpful it is to your operation."

General James Conway, of the Marine Corps, was a bit blunter: "It doesn’t make anything right. It does make it a little better from a public relations perspective."

Despite this embrace by military commanders, the payment systems can still seem improvised and imperfect.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has tried several times to create a permanent set of rules and dedicated source of funding for condolence payments.


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"Senator Leahy believes we need legislation to authorize it which gives discretion to field commanders and includes guidelines so the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented every time the U.S. military is deployed in combat," said Tim Rieser, his foreign policy aide.

Beyond Afghanistan » Should condolence payments become more codified, it is unclear how many, if any of those rules and requirements would apply to the world of targeted killings off the traditional battlefield. To date, the U.S. has yet to acknowledge any particular instance where a civilian was killed as a consequence of a drone strike outside Afghanistan – let alone if that person’s family was compensated.

Pentagon spokesman Bill Speaks said that "the Department of Defense has not made solatia payments" in Yemen or Somalia, where the U.S. has acknowledged military action. The CIA’s drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen remain officially secret.

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon would comment further on Brennan’s statement about condolence payments. The CIA also declined to comment.

There are occasional reports of condolence payments in Yemen and Pakistan, but the U.S. role in those payments — if there was one — remains unclear.

In Pakistan, officials paid roughly $3,000 to the families of more than 30 people killed in a March 2011 strike. Last September, after a drone strike in Yemen killed as many as 14 civilians, families of the victims blocked roads and demanded compensation. According to the Washington Post, the Yemeni government publicly apologized and offered "101 guns to tribal leaders in the area as a symbolic gesture." Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula reportedly sent its own offers of condolence. (The embassies of Yemen and Pakistan did not respond to questions about condolence payments.)

In recent months several former military and diplomatic leaders have expressed concern about reliance on drones to target terror suspects, and potential "blowback" from the program. A focus on targeting militants overlooks broad resentment of U.S. military actions, they said, echoing the issue that strained U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. also sends vast amounts of aid and provides counterinsurgency training to countries where it is hunting Al Qaeda-linked militants. Foreign aid to Pakistan includes earmarks for assistance to civilians harmed by military operations. That’s in part to acknowledge the impact of the U.S. presence in the region, said Rieser, Senator Leahy’s aide.

"But of course there is a limit to what we can do in a country whose government with which we often disagree, in a remote and dangerous region where implementing any program is difficult," he said.

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