DAHANEH, Afghanistan — The U.S. Marines came uninvited to Abdul-Hamid's home in this southern Afghan town and made their presence felt.
They blew holes in the mud walls that surround the several small buildings in his family's compound, broke through rooms hunting for weapons and militants, and handcuffed and blindfolded the men. Their main target: Abdul-Hamid's neighbor and the neighbor's sons, all suspected insurgents.
Less than a week later, Abdul-Hamid, a 50-year-old farmer who uses only one name, trotted alongside a staff sergeant, listing every broken item in his home. It was payback time — literally.
As winning the "hearts and minds" of ordinary Afghans becomes a higher priority in the war on the Taliban and al-Qaida, U.S. troops are finding that one of the most potent weapons in their arsenal is hard cash.
Under a special allocation from Congress, a project called the Commander Emergency Relief Program uses American taxpayer dollars to repay Afghans for damage caused during military operations.
The program isn't new. Commanders have been doling out money in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to compensate civilians for combat losses.
But it's new here in the Now Zad Valley, where there have been no significant numbers of international forces for years until Marines entered the area this month.
In the valley, the image of U.S. and NATO troops was one presented by the Taliban. U.S. commanders hope the compensation program will help change that image.
Region allotted $250 million
The project employs some 35 Marines from the Civil Affairs unit in Afghanistan and has been allotted $250 million this fiscal year for southern Afghanistan alone, said Lt. Col. Curtis Lee, a program manager in the embattled region.
Authorities have even established a grid to price each type of suffering based on local customs and values.
A slain civilian translates to $2,500 in compensation to a family. A dead cow goes for nearly the same amount, because they are so hard to raise in southern Afghanistan's barren countryside and are crucial to a family's well-being. A broken window: about $50. A broken door can go up to $110 if it's made of metal and has nice smithery.
"People here are really struggling to make a living, so any material damage is a very big deal," said Staff Sgt. Todd Bowers, 30, from Washington, D.C. "Just a little money can make their lives much better."
The U.S. military is reaching out to civilians more now that NATO's top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has made gaining popular support the crux of his counterinsurgency strategy.
Program also consults villagers
While that includes doling out cash, it also means consulting villagers in a region where local councils are a normal means of decision-making — including allowing residents directly affected by operations to air their grievances.
Abdul-Hamid, his wife, and their 10 children, for instance, endured a terrifying, middle-of-the-night ordeal on the outskirts of Dahaneh, a longtime Taliban stronghold stormed last week by Marines from Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines.
The Marines arrived by helicopter in the middle of the night, shoving M-16s in the family members' faces as multiple squads stormed through. At one point, one of the farmer's adult sons cried softly because his plastic handcuffs were so tight his fingers turned purple.
The Marines then used explosives to burst through the wall into the compound belonging to Abdul-Hamid's neighbor. A baby started crying after the second explosion sent shrapnel and debris flying high over Abdul-Hamid's courtyard.
Minutes later, the Taliban in town had regrouped and begun firing rockets, mortars and missiles at the Marines resisting from Abdul-Hamid's and his neighbor's compounds.
Barely two days after that, Abdul-Hamid sat down with village elders, Afghan army officers and a dozen Marines, discussing how to improve relations and bring normalcy back to Dahaneh.
The elders wanted their detained clansmen freed, which Marines said would happen once they'd been fully investigated. The elders assured the troops that no Taliban were left in town and pledged to press fleeing civilians to return.
Abdul-Hamid wanted the troops to return to his house, where Afghan soldiers who'd moved in along with the Marines were already plucking chickens from his courtyard.
The Civil Affairs unit took his photo, fingerprinted him and scanned his irises to run through a countrywide NATO computer system. But his persistent nagging of the Marines in the compound — unlike his neighbor, who'd fled town when his sons were arrested — also helped convince the troops he was not a militant.
Bowers, of Civil Affairs, told the farmer an assessment team would inspect his home and reimburse him for every broken window, door and wall.
"That's fine," the farmer said. "But what about my lost dignity?"
No repayment for opium
During the inspection alongside Staff Sgt. Evan Matos four days later, Abdul-Hamid seemed more content, though it turned out that he would not be repaid for the 66 pounds of opium the Marines had seized in his home.
The drug is illegal under Afghan law but is a critical part of the economy for many in the south.
"That's not fair, these are my savings — I buy sugar and tea, and clothes for the children with it," Abdul-Hamid said.
Matos said the Marines were evaluating how much Abdul-Hamid's home was worth and would pay him a good rent as long as they were stationed here. He said the compensation for the damage was not aimed at buying Abdul-Hamid's loyalty.
"We're trying to show him and others that we're not bullies, and that we're a constructive force in Afghanistan," said Matos, 25, of New York City.
Matos was solemn as he pulled out 125,000 Afghanis — the equivalent of $2,500 and a huge amount by local standards — from a small metallic chest and handed the money to Abdul-Hamid.
The farmer was smiling.
"How about you top that with another 25,000" Afghanis, Abdul-Hamid said, "so we reach a round figure?"
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