Recent headlines suggest that Afghanistan is headed for collapse – the result of US troop withdrawals, Taliban attacks in Kabul, and the Parliament in constitutional crisis. While the challenges that Afghanistan faces are unarguably difficult, the defining question is whether Afghans can and will stand up for themselves.
One common gauge of progress is the strength of the Afghan police and military. Yet as we know, a fighting force that provides physical security is only one part of the equation. What about the effectiveness and integrity of government ministers and parliamentarians, judges, lawyers, business executives, and others in positions of authority? These people are pillars of democracy, and their performance so far has been disappointing – with corruption, incompetence, and bitter infighting all too common.
Now, however, a wave of students – who were mere children when the US first invaded the country in 2001 – is graduating from Afghanistan’s universities. Can they be bulwarks of successful democracy? Our experiences suggest that this next generation of leaders provides cause for hope for Afghanistan’s future.
As part of the Afghanistan Legal Education Project, I and several other students from Stanford Law School recently visited Kabul for textbook-writing research. There, we sat in on a class, the Introduction to the Laws of Afghanistan, taught to a group of 30 eager Afghan undergraduates at the American University of Afghanistan. The professor, Haroon Mutasem, is a rising star in the legal community. He was first in his class at Kabul University during the Taliban era – even though it was dangerous for anyone from his Tajik ethnic group to “stand out” among the predominantly Pashtun Taliban . He then received an advanced legal degree from the University of Washington on a scholarship.
Mr. Mutasem cold-called students, just as one would at an American law school, and they responded with thoughtful answers and asked pointed questions of their own. The evening class time accommodates students with full-time jobs, like Jamil Danish, who works during the day as a journalist. Mr. Danish wanted to learn about Afghan law to better inform his coverage of politics and current events.
More than a few of the students grew up in Pakistan, where their families fled during the chaos and fighting of previous decades. Several told us they felt a responsibility to learn about the laws of Afghanistan, to understand the country where they now live.
Our group also spoke at length with top legal students selected by USAID from Afghanistan’s public universities for an English-language training program. These men and women were bright and friendly, nervous about their job prospects but seemingly upbeat about their country. The education they received in school is heavy with theory and memorization, but the students eagerly seized the practical knowledge and critical thinking skills in the new Afghan law textbooks that our project writes.
The students plan to apply their legal knowledge in a variety of careers, from business to government to nonprofits. Unfortunately, the private sector is still weak in Afghanistan, and job opportunities are scarce, especially for women.
One afternoon we interviewed Hamid Rasooli, a potential translator for our textbooks. Mr. Rasooli is a mid-twenties returnee from Pakistan, where he learned English in a refugee camp since it was one of the few proven ways to get ahead. As we shook hands at the end of the interview he told us he was particularly interested in translating our textbooks because they bring valuable knowledge to his fellow Afghans, his “brothers.” This is the type of goodwill and optimism we encountered in almost every young adult we met.
For many years there has been an emphasis in Afghanistan on building structures, both physical and governmental: new courthouses, new laws, new schools. These produce easily quantifiable results and indicate progress on paper. But for Afghanistan to stabilize, a key ingredient is educated citizens who can effectively and fairly run the government, implement the laws, and work as judges and attorneys in the courts.
Based on our group’s interactions with the next generation – people like Mutasem, Danish, and Rasooli – we believe there is hope. By empowering this generation of students with legal knowledge, they can be building blocks for a stronger Afghan democracy as they fan out into critical positions in the government and economy. Importantly, America still has time to think about how it can best foster this long-term development going forward.
Admittedly, our experiences are anecdotal, but they are also targeted. We work with only a small, unusually well educated subsection of Afghans. But there is no doubt that these students are the next generation of leaders, for better or worse. We believe the next generation will work for the better.
Daniel Lewis is a third-year student at Stanford Law School and co-executive director of the Afghanistan Legal Education Project based there.