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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Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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