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Are Afghan lives worth just $2,500?

Compensation system speaks volumes about the skewed morality of our military campaigns.

On 10 February -- as 15,000 US and Nato troops prepared for Operation Moshtarak -- the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, announced what he called a "fair and just" revision to the UK's military compensation scheme. The BBC reports that, under the new rules:

One-off awards will increase by an average of 30 per cent, while the rule limiting payouts to the first three injuries per incident will be scrapped.

What this means in real terms is that a soldier who was seriously injured in a conflict situation would now receive up to £1.5m in financial support over a lifetime.

The reforms are likely to cost the MoD tens of millions of pounds, but the change is long overdue. They follow much-criticised attempts by the Labour government to reduce the payouts to two wounded soldiers in 2009 -- a move in sharp contrast to Gordon Brown's professed attitude to honouring our troops (his sentimental descriptions of Wootton Bassett as "a symbol for the whole nation's . . . remembrance", etc).

Ainsworth's timing was strategically sound. The first stage of Stanley McChrystal's campaign involved more than 1,000 UK troops; the stakes -- and risks -- were high. So far, 552 UK service personnel have been badly injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Hundreds more have died.

Although progress is being made in paying compensation to British soldiers, the same cannot be said of the frankly disrespectful sums being offered to bereaved families in the war zones.

In early 2004, Amnesty International organised a campaign urging its members to protest directly to Tony Blair about the killing of Baha Mousa, a 26-year-old hotel receptionist, at the hands of UK forces in Basra. Mousa -- who, it transpired, was the son of an Iraqi police colonel -- was reportedly restrained, hooded, and then kicked repeatedly, even as he begged his attackers to stop because he could not breathe. The British army later produced a death certificate stating that he had died of asphyxiation.

The MoD's initial response was to offer Mousa's relatives a paltry £4,500, with the proviso that its troops could not be held responsible for his death. After an inquiry, the then defence secretary, Des Browne, admitted to "substantial breaches" of the European Convention on Human Rights in Mousa's killing, and agreed to raise the payout to over £2.8m.

Today, civilian deaths are worryingly commonplace. On 22 February, 27 Afghan civilians were killed in a US and allied air strike that destroyed a convoy of vehicles heading towards Kandahar. The use of US air power has been curbed, yet the value placed on Afghan and Iraqi lives is clearly nominal.

In cynical efforts to mitigate the backlash surrounding such lethal attacks, the US army has devised a new compensation system that covers deaths, injuries and damage resulting from coalition operations. The Associated Press reports that the death of a child or adult is valued at just $2,500, and serious injuries (including loss of limbs) at $1,500.

That a damaged or destroyed vehicle would fetch $2,500 -- the same amount as a dead son or daughter -- speaks volumes about the skewed morality of our military campaigns.

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