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Pentagon faces question: Should it make condolence payments for Taliban killed in hospital bombing?

In this Oct. 16, 2015 file photo, the charred remains of the Doctors Without Borders hospital is seen after it was hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan. (Najim Rahim via AP)

As the U.S. military continues to investigate the airstrikes it launched on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, the Pentagon faces a thorny question: Will it make condolence payments for the Taliban fighters who were killed there while recuperating from battlefield injuries?

The hospital was bombed for more than an hour on Oct. 3, with a mixture of medical personnel, Afghan soldiers, civilians and Taliban fighters inside. At least 30 people medical professionals and patients were killed. At the time, the hospital had 105 patients, including 20 members of the Taliban, according to a report released Thursday by Doctors Without Borders.

[‘I’m praying for you all.’ Doctors Without Borders releases text messages with the U.S. military the night of hospital bombing]

The U.S. military has two investigations that are ongoing. One of them is carried out by what is known as a Combined Civilian Casualty Assessment Team (CCAT), and will determine how many civilians were killed and who they were. The second investigation, led by a senior Army officer not involved in the airstrikes, will determine how the incident occurred and whether anyone should be held accountable.

A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, told reporters on Thursday that military officials are working closely with MSF to identify who the victims killed and wounded were “so we can conclude our investigations and proceed with follow-on actions, to include condolence payments.” Learning the identities of the victims is key to both investigations underway, he added.

Davis, when asked if that meant members of the Taliban or their families may receive condolence payments, said that he did not want to speculate.

We have indicated a willingness to do condolence payments as soon as we can when the investigations are done,” Davis said. “I don’t know that we are differentiating patient by patient.”

The situation raises the prospect that the U.S. military could make condolence payments for deaths or injuries to fighters who faced American troops on the battlefield. Doctors Without Borders has acknowledged Taliban fighters were patients in their hospital, but have insisted they were there only as patients at the time of the airstrikes.

The military has made condolence payments following operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries for years, but rarely in such a high-profile case. A 2009 report posted on the Web site of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., states that condolence payments can be authorized from a fund known as the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), with a sliding scale of money available depending on what happened.

A battalion commander-level officer in the military can provide up to $2,500 per person for deaths caused by the U.S. military, according to the document. But larger payments can be made with the approval of a general.

“In extraordinary circumstances, a unit can pay up to $10K per person or damaged property, but it must be approved by the first U.S. General Officer in the chain of command,” the CERP report states. “This authority cannot be delegated.”

Condolence payments, the report adds, are not an admission of guilty by the U.S. government.

“Condolence payments are symbolic gestures and are not paid to compensate someone for a loss,” the report said.

Davis declined to say on Thursday how large the condolence payments for the Kunduz bombing will be.

Related stories:
Aid group: U.S. military was told of no threats at hospital before Kunduz airstrikes

The Pentagon’s evolving response to the Afghan hospital attack

Top U.S. general in Afghanistan: Hospital ‘mistakenly struck’