ANDAHAR, Afghanistan — One of Canada’s best bangs for its counter-insurgency buck is a low-key, low-cost program that compensates Afghans when Canadian soldiers wreck property or injure civilians during military operations.
While generally modest, the payments are an important part of Canada’s strategy of trying to reassure ordinary Afghans that Canadian forces are there to help.
“It’s a phenomenal counter to the insurgents’ information campaign that we don’t care about the civilian population, that we’re here as an occupying and invading force,” said Lt.-Cmdr. Mike McCarthy, a legal officer.
“We actively show the people that we do in fact care very much about them.”
One day a week, aggrieved Afghans show up at the gate of Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar city — Canada’s military-civilian outreach base — to press their claims.
Most are for crop damage. Canadian light armoured vehicles, tanks and other military vehicles are frequently forced off-road by the threat of improvised explosive devices.
The result can be flattened grape or wheat fields and damaged walls that enclose every field and compound in districts such as Panjwaii or Arghandab, which are rich farming areas.
In all, the program has received about a thousand individual claims in recent years, many for vehicle damage, and shelled out in the low millions — a drop in the military bucket.
Armed with a bunch of files and a backpack crammed with two million afghanis (about C$42,000) picked up at the base cashier, McCarthy spends one morning a week in a small room just inside the camp gate.
In ones or groups of three or four, the Afghans sit on a metal bench across a table, while an interpreter does the back and forth.
Pleasantries are exchanged. Then it’s down to business.
“Sadly, the agreement between Afghanistan and Canada is very explicit: that we are not liable for damage caused during operations,” McCarthy, a Newfoundlander, tells one claimant with just the right touch of empathy.
“Obviously, we understand that he has suffered damage but we won’t be able to pay him as much as he wants.”
It’s a line he’ll repeat numerous times through the morning.
When the Afghan remonstrates, McCarthy throws in a few thousand more afghanis, and says it’s all he can offer. The deal is done.
The claimant inks his thumb, puts his imprint on the release forms, and Master Cpl. Ken Hutcheson, a beefy military police officer standing in the corner, quickly peels off the required cash and hands it over.
There’s a bit more chit chat, the man cleans his dyed thumb with wet wipes, thanks McCarthy, stashes the wad of bills under his clothing, and disappears back out into the bright sunshine.
He seems satisfied — although there is sometimes the obligatory grumbling.
“You can say I’m fine with that money, but it is not that much,” said one man, who estimated he received 20 per cent of what he should have been paid.
Claimants are required to present some form of proof to support their claims — anything from photographs to letters from village elders.
Where possible, applications are cross-checked against records Canadian soldiers keep of damage they cause.
“There’s a large element of good faith,” McCarthy concedes.
Once a claim is deemed valid, the payouts are based on negotiation.
Grape-field damage, for example, is calculated by the number, maturity and quality of plants.
Claims for crop damage typically run around $1,800 to $2,000 — payouts above that threshold require the approval for the deputy minister in Ottawa.
Personal injury claims can be several times higher.
Claims are denied when Canadian forces were not involved in the damage. Where possible, a reference letter is provided so the person can go to the appropriate American or other force involved.
When the damage was caused by the insurgents, claims are flatly rejected.
“Even if the claim is denied … people at the end of the day have a sense that they’ve been treated fairly,” McCarthy says.