The Pentagon is about to get a $5 million fund to pay the Iraqi families of civilians killed by American airstrikes. It’s a big change for the U.S. military, which has yet to publicly acknowledge accidentally killing or wounding any innocents in the country even after 3,586 airstrikes targeting the so-called Islamic State.
Buried deep in the annual defense budget bill, passed by the House Thursday, is $5 million set aside for the Defense Department to use in Iraq if the U.S. military harms a civilian or destroys their property.
The Defense Department has only acknowledged the deaths of a handful of Syrian civilians who have been killed by U.S. airstrikes, despite news reports that say the death toll in Iraq and Syria is at least in the hundreds. (But the Pentagon has several open investigations and such admissions may be soon in coming.) If the Pentagon has made any condolence payments since it began its fight against the ISIS in the summer of 2014, it has not made those public, making this new pot of money a significant development.
It shows the Pentagon is now taking steps to be ready to compensate civilian victims -- whether they’ve lost a family member, an arm, or their house to a U.S. bomb. Such remittances typically run about $2,500 each, meaning the U.S. could hand out up to 2,000 “condolence payments” to Iraqis in the next year alone.
“The U.S. is taking a positive step by acknowledging civilian harm and offering monetary payments to those suffering losses,” said Sahr Muhammedally, a senior program manager at the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “While payments can never fully compensate for the lost of a loved one, they show recognition of the harm and can help with immediate expenses. The Iraqi government should enact a similar program to assist its citizens.”
While they money and legal authority is now in place for the U.S. to pay for accidental deaths and injuries in Iraq, no such fund exists for Syria, where, without a large presence of U.S. troops on the ground, it’s much more difficult to assess the damage caused by American bombs. Even in Iraq this poses a problem. The U.S. military has acknowledged that a set of airstrikes in Syria last November “likely resulted in non-combatant casualties.” (The Pentagon did not respond in time to comment for this story.)
As of Nov. 3, the U.S. has conducted 3,586 airstrikes in Iraq and 2,578 Syria.
Meanwhile, this new money for Iraq is tucked away in a program that is actually intended for Afghanistan, called the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program, or CERP. In the military it’s also referred to as the Money as a Weapon System program.
Since 2004, the CERP fund, which was first created for Iraq but then expanded to Afghanistan, has provided American commanders with over $6 billion in petty cash to spend on small reconstruction projects that could help foster goodwill with local populations. It’s also been used to make condolence payments to the families of innocents killed by U.S. forces.
The rules that govern CERP say that most commanders can approve up to $2,500 per person or damaged property, but higher ups can sign off on even bigger sums if needed, according to a May 2015 investigation by ProPublica.
For example, the Pentagon has said it will use the CERP fund in Afghanistan to pay the families of the dozens of civilians killed and injured by an airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz. It has not indicated how much each payment could be.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed the annual defense policy bill, which authorizes $10 million to be spent on CERP in Afghanistan in 2016. But, if you read the fine print, you’ll see that Congress is also allowing up to $5 million of that funding to be used for condolence payments in Iraq should U.S. “combat operations” lead to “damage, personal injury, or death.”
The Senate is expected to pass the bill this week, after which it will go to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.
When the Pentagon submitted its war budget in February, it asked for $10 million for CERP in Afghanistan, but made no mention of money being needed for condolence payments in Iraq.
According to a congressional source, U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, came to the congressional defense committees and let them know that it “frankly wanted to reopen CERP in Iraq.”
But, the CERP fund is not particularly popular on Capitol Hill.
CERP was originally envisioned to be walking-around money that commanders could use quickly and with few strings attached to respond quickly to the needs of the people they were supposed to be protecting in either Iraq or Afghanistan. But sometimes, the initiatives got out of control and became multimillion-dollar reconstruction projects.
In 2011, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that several of the CERP projects were either at risk of failure or had questionable outcomes. Some of the money is also believed to have been lost to fraud or corruption.
When the Central Command indicated it wanted to reopen CERP in Iraq last spring, the House pushed back, pointing out that the “C” in CERP stands for commander, and in Iraq, there are no U.S. military commanders out in the community who could identify the need for small infrastructure projects, the congressional source told The Daily Beast.
“We don’t have U.S. military folks wandering around Mosul saying, they need a new sewage system,” he added.
But the Senate was more open to the idea, according to the source, partly because CERP funds have been used to cover accidental damage and death payments in the past.
In fact, this is one area where CERP funds are generally agreed to be a good idea.
The two committees agreed to give the military the money, under the condition that it only be spent on these types of compensation payments and not on any reconstruction projects, the congressional source said.
“It makes a lot of sense that Congress wanted to circumscribe it because of concerns about how it came to be used in the latter days in Iraq,” said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel who worked at the Office of Management and Budget before joining the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
Cancian said he’s not surprised the U.S. military wanted to start another CERP fund in Iraq, because it can make life easier for commanders.
“They can respond quickly to things that come up,” he said. “You don’t have to put in forms and wait.”
The defense policy bill not only makes the money available, but it also provides the necessary legal authorities commanders would need to be able to spend money like this, Cancian pointed out.
So why is the money buried away in a fund for Afghanistan?
It’s partly because the money is sitting there, going unused, the congressional source said.
In 2015, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan had $10 million to spend, and as of Aug. 31, had only spent $704,000 of it, according to the congressional source.
Before the Pentagon can go ahead and use the money on condolence payments in Iraq, Congress wants to know exactly how much of the $5 million the Defense Department intends to spend, how claims for the payments will be verified, how the payments will be made, and exactly who in the military will have the authority to approve them.
Once those steps are taken, the U.S. military can begin doling out its new pot of cash.