British forces are linked to the deaths of 86 children and more than 200 adult civilians during the Afghanistan conflict, with compensation of just £2,380 paid on average for each life lost, new figures reveal.
They are recorded in official Ministry of Defence (MoD) compensation logs, obtained by a series of freedom of information requests. According to the data, the youngest recorded civilian victim was three years old.
One of the most serious incidents listed in the records is the award of £4,233.60 to a family following the death of four children who were mistakenly “shot and killed” in an incident in December 2009.
Some of the payments amounted to less than a few hundred pounds. In February 2008, one family received £104.17 following a confirmed fatality and damage to a property in Helmand province, while another was compensated £586.42 for the death of their 10-year-old son in December 2009.
The data was compiled by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), which examined the logs to coincide with the withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan last month culminating in the chaotic airlift from Kabul airport.
There is renewed focus on civilian casualties in Afghanistan after the US was forced to admit that a drone strike last month killed 10 civilians including seven children – and not militants from Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), as was first claimed.
A “terrible mistake” was made, said Gen Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, as he offered his “profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed”.
In the British logs, many of the incidents are recorded only briefly. Murray Jones, the author of the research, said: “These files do not make for easy reading. The banality of language means hundreds of tragic deaths, including dozens of children, read more like an inventory.”
AOAV estimates 20,390 civilians were killed or injured by international and Afghan forces during the 20-year conflict – although that is one-third of the number killed by the Taliban and other insurgents. A total of 457 British soldiers also died during the period.
Overall the compensation logs show £688,000 was paid out by the UK military for incidents involving 289 deaths between 2006 and 2013, the last year of British combat operations in the country, meaning the average compensation paid by the MoD per civilian killed was £2,380.
Payments recorded also relate to operations involving the SAS, which has been accused of being involved in the execution of civilians during the conflict. The family of three Afghan farmers allegedly killed in cold blood in 2012 received £3,634 three weeks after the incident. The logs describe the money as an “assistance payment to be made to calm local atmopherics [sic]”.
In some cases, payments for property damage were greater than those recorded for the loss of life. During 2009-10, the MoD awarded compensation of £873 for a damaged crane and £662 for the death of six donkeys “when they wandered on to the rifle range”.
The payout data is one of the few ways to establish how many civilians were likely to have been killed by British forces in Afghanistan, as the MoD has said in response to other freedom of information requests that it does not hold any figures centrally.
British officials say that efforts are routinely made to minimise the impact of military operations on civilians. But in other contexts the UK has only made limited admissions: the MoD says that there has been one civilian casualty during the RAF bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq against Islamic State during more than 10,000 missions since August 2014.
An MoD spokesperson said the amount of compensation paid in each case was determined by a mixture of legal principles as well as local customs and practices. “Every civilian death is a tragedy and the UK always seeks to minimise the risk of civilian casualties through our rigorous targeting processes, but that risk can never be removed entirely,” they added.
The MoD has previously said that it has reviewed allegations of SAS involvement in extra judicial executions, and said there was “insufficient evidence for prosecution”.