Murphy's Law: The Grateful Dead


March 15, 2009: American troops who have served in Iraq find a lot differences await them in Afghanistan. One of the more amazing ones is the dead goat scam. Works like this. Any time a smart bomb gets dropped in an isolated location (which describes most of Afghanistan), and there is any chance of civilian casualties, the locals immediately make a fuss about seeking out who was hurt or killed. The village elders insist that outsiders stay away during this trying time. Even the foreign soldiers and Afghan police are put off (after the search for Taliban bodies, documents and equipment is completed. Being good Moslems, they bury the dead before sunset of the same day. The next day, the elders will claim as many civilian dead as they think they can get away with. The additional graves get a dead goat or other animal, so the proper stench permeates the mound of earth. Digging up graves is also against Islamic law, so the elders know the foreign troops have to take their word for it. The elders also know that the foreign troops, depending on nationality, will pay $1,000-$5,000 compensation per dead civilian. Not only is there a big payday, but the Taliban appreciate the bad publicity directed at the foreigners, and usually show their appreciation by cutting this village or valley some slack in the future.

This scam works because there aren't many public records in Afghanistan. The only ones who know exactly who lives in a village are the people there, and the elders speak for everyone. Investigators have a hard time interrogating individuals, because the elders, and everyone there, has a vested interest in not being found out.

Some of the elders get greedy. For example,  despite an intensive investigation into a bombing last Summer in Azizabad (outside Heart), the villagers got paid for over 90 dead. Investigators, piecing together what information they could, were certain that there were only 15 dead civilians (plus Taliban). But you can't touch the graves, and even questioning the veracity of the claims gets you howls of indignation.

In Iraq, there were records, and most of the action was in densely populated areas. The investigation was prompt, and the Iraqis were not as bold and aggressive as the Afghans in keeping officials out. Iraq has a 5,000 year tradition of central government and officials who cannot be chased away. Afghanistan has none of that, at least out in the countryside. The local Afghan police are not enthusiastic about getting to the truth, since denying the villagers a payday will mean the police will be blamed, and the villagers will be eager to even the score down the line. If the police play along, they can expect a reward, from the village elders, for their trouble.

The scam benefits others as well. The Islamic media, and many news outlets in the West, like the idea that a lot more civilians are being killed. For the Westerners, "if it bleeds it leads", and there's a bonus if you want to get in some shots about how poorly the war is being run. Of course, if you interview the American troops involved, you get closer to the truth. But that's not a newsworthy story, and you don't really want to call the soldiers liars, so it's best to just stay away from them. Go for the story, not for the truth.


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