In Afghanistan, What Counts?
In the aftermath of the suicide bombing at the volleyball game in Paktika, the November 18th explosion of another bomb at the entrance of a foreign compound in Kabul, a drawn-out presidential election, and a new cabinet failing to form, it is difficult for most in the international community to feel hopeful about the future of Afghanistan. For many, the nagging doubts and frustrations over the waste of time, money, resources, and lives readily come back to haunt.
Still one has to look closer. In 2014 there were also events that shone like glimmers of hope, giving those who were watching a sense that some things were working right in the country, though perhaps not exactly as the West had originally envisioned. In addition to millions of Afghan women voting during the country’s presidential election, bits of progress in its criminal justice system showed that some Afghans have taken the knowledge and skills the West has shared and used them for the betterment of their society. In early September, seven men were tried and five were sentenced to death for the gang rape and robbery of a group of women in Paghman. In late October, a mullah was sentenced to 20 years of jail for the rape of a 10 year old girl in Kunduz. The same month the Taliban, with finite resources, chose to bomb the Kunduz Appeals Court, killing at least 6 prosecutors and one policeman. This incident, while deadly, suggests that the justice system in Afghanistan was doing something right.
Though there could be a number of other factors and motivations behind these developments and the fact that not everyone agrees with the speed and outcomes of the Afghan judicial process, one truth shines through: Afghanistan’s criminal justice system is progressing. It is moving cases and making an example of those who violate the law.
Having been a rule of law advisor in Afghanistan for a U.S. government-funded program, I saw first-hand how many of the prosecutors and judges in Kunduz province struggled. On separate occasions, prosecutors revealed their concern for their own safety. Several stated they did not answer cellphone calls whose number they did not recognize; they had received threats this way in the past. Another did not buy groceries from anyone unfamiliar. He explained he was very careful about anyone who handled his food. Furthermore, a Kunduz judge told me whenever he traveled, he always went incognito: he changed his clothes and used different cars. He said he felt unsafe, even in his chambers and often when he walked into the streets.
In addition to these challenges, prosecutors disclosed their institution had payroll problems. Several stated they had not been paid for several months, forcing at least one to take a second job selling vegetables during off-hours. Moreover, their offices were often spartan with little furniture, no computer system, and lacking in office supplies. While neither solving salary problems nor stocking offices was within the purview of our program, these revelations and observations alerted me just how difficult it was to be productive in the country’s justice system. Despite the hardships, these employees came to work every day and processed their cases.
This is not to say that corruption did not seep in nor was every officer of the court I met hard-working, knowledgeable, or fair. It is simply an acknowledgment that most of them were doing what they can under the circumstances and moving the cases within the parameters of their interpretation of the law, culture, and religion even if it was not justice as the West defines it. In late September when the people of Ghazni province took the law in their own hands and hanged several Taliban from a tree, many in the international community were aghast. Was there any form of due process? We may never know. Yet this incident was a victory for many Afghans. It was a sign that they were confident in their decision; it was the way many came to some sense of justice.
As 2015 dawns upon us and new insurgent activities arise, let us not forget to notice the little things that are going right in Afghanistan. The outcomes may not always be what we had envisioned nor will we necessarily agree with what its people define as justice. Yet they are doing what they can and promoting what they see as right. It might be slow and often masked, but nevertheless justice is taking place and it counts.