Small Wars Journal

In Afghanistan, What Counts?

In Afghanistan, What Counts?

Jade Wu

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.


Bill M.

Sun, 11/30/2014 - 12:56pm

In reply to by Jade Wu

Essential services need to be provided as soon as humanly possible (water, food, security, medical, and so forth), even if we're being opposed by an active adversary. The basis of my argument is that much of the development we focused on, to include rule of law, should have been secondary to actually conducting warfare against the still active adversary. Instead we worked under the myth that we could win the hearts and minds of the Afghans collectively (as though they're one body with one mind), and they in turn would oust the Taliban. This approach ignores reality, so we shouldn't be surprised by the results. At the end of the day coercion will trump acts of kindness.

We can't defeat armed in adversaries with soft power (the power of our example and the power of attraction) in most cases, yet we had a strategy where the military effort was subordinate to the development effort. A strategy not only bound to fail, but one that actually supported the Taliban. The Taliban heavily taxed our development efforts, which in turn funded their operations.

We had a strategy based on hope, not practical realities. We permitted girls to go to school, certainly a positive thing in our view, but it will mean little when the armed adversaries close the school and possibly punish the girls for going to school. Our thinking is too short term based. We become enamored with our acts of kindness, that all too often are acts of selfishness because they make us feel good. We fail to see how these acts of kindness will backfire on the people we intended to help. It would be quite a different story if we actually decided to win the fight, but instead we embraced the false hope of a flawed COIN doctrine that failed to pursue a victory (that of course meant a negotiated settlement, but it takes more force than we applied to bring the adversaries to the table). Good work done by all the developers? Certainly? Will some of it endure even if the Taliban takes over? Most likely some of it will. I don't think we will see a Maoist like purge of those who worked with Westerners.

Jade Wu

Sun, 11/30/2014 - 12:25pm

It would be ideal to secure the environment before development programs such as rule of law, good governance, education, and health are put in place. Yet how long would this take? 5 years, 10 years, 20+ years? Who would decide that the environment was finally secure enough to begin these programs? Can these programs be postponed indefinitely? By postponing these programs for a more secure environment, is this adding to the instability of the country? Human infrastructure such as health and rule of law cannot wait for a more stable atmosphere. It is essential they are attended to right away, even if they have to struggle to survive. This is what many in Afghanistan's criminal justice system are doing. Yes, the battle of wills and might may eventually determine whose rule of law rules but during the interim it is critical that these issues are addressed.

This seems a bit overly optimistic. I recall brave judges and prosecutors in Iraq also. There is a long history of brave prosecutors and judges in Italy who risk it all (and all too often give all) to fight organized crime. Yet, in both cases, as I suspect is the case in Afghanistan, these efforts are too small to stop the red tide from coming in. In the end, the side with will and capacity to employ coercive power (force) will determine which rule of law will be followed. At least in parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban are the de-facto prosecutors and judges, and I doubt they respect the right of girls and women to go to school and vote.

There has been much good work done by brave and selfless souls in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the non-military domains (development, rule of law, etc.) that is often under appreciated, but strategically we failed to establish a secure environment where these rays of hope could multiply and become a new norm. When we made development the supported effort before we won the battle of wills against our armed adversary (assuming it could be won) we simply threw money and lives away in hope that our adversaries would see the same light we did.