What legal education could do for a resilient Afghanistan

Americans need a more complex, realistic picture of Afghanistan. Such a picture shows that US efforts to support education and the development of Afghan civil society should not be abandoned. It also shows that these initiatives may require patience and persistence.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (center), with his foreign minister, Zalmay Rasul (left), meets with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill, Jan. 9. Op-ed contributor Julian Simcock says 'Afghanistan is not simply a place where military strategies play themselves out. It is home to a population of individuals with vibrant lives, personal ambitions, and, as history attests, ample capacity for endurance.'

As Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai meets with President Obama in Washington this week, and the Senate prepares to consider Mr. Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, now seems like an apt time for reflection on the US strategy in Afghanistan. In particular, what does America’s approach to Afghanistan’s educational needs reveal about its long-term goals for the country?

Last fall, in a brief and unceremonious election, I became the co-director of a small group – the Afghanistan Legal Education Project– at Stanford Law School. Our organization works with academics in Kabul to write law textbooks for young Afghans.

Early visions of prestige notwithstanding, I’ve learned by now that my duties are mostly administrative – editing, scheduling, sending cajoling emails. But for all that the job lacks in diplomatic glamour, it comes with an unusual perk. Each week, I host a Skype call with our American teaching fellow in Kabul. Over time, her insight has come to serve as a healthy source of perspective: a sense that Afghanistan is more sophisticated – and resilient – than many pundits and politicians suggest. America’s approach to its future should be, too.

Jenn Round is our longest serving teaching fellow, and she’s been reporting back from Kabul for more than 18 months. When our weekly calls began, she and I mostly stuck to discussing the project. Now, however, when there is little textbook business to discuss, we fill the time with other topics.

It’s in this way, through secondhand snippets about Jenn’s students, that I’ve learned the textured details of student life in Kabul. I’ve heard stories about a new “law club,” job-market jitters, even fledgling romances. For one hour each week, the lives of Jenn’s students are transmitted across continents, and reassemble themselves in my San Francisco apartment.

These are more than idle tangents. They serve as reminders that Afghanistan is not simply a place where military strategies play themselves out. It is home to a population of individuals with vibrant lives, personal ambitions, and, as history attests, ample capacity for endurance.

Much of our focus on Afghanistan is on the upcoming withdrawal of US troops (which the Obama administration has made clear will be concluded in 2014). We argue about failures and successes, profits and losses. Almost invariably, somewhere beneath these discussions lies an unwieldy question: What happens next?

America’s military presence is an important issue for Afghanistan, but it is not all encompassing. Afghanistan has experienced such transitions before, and the choice it now faces is not necessarily between cataclysmic violence and peace.

In short, the question is not solely one of what happens next in Afghanistan. It is about how Americans and the international community decide to contribute, regardless of what happens.

To that end, a basic tenet of our project is that legal knowledge, once provided, cannot be taken away. The learning that a student receives in a classroom may lie dormant. It may be tested and challenged. But it has a stubborn, intractable quality. It is far more difficult to destroy than roads or infrastructure.

In keeping with these long-term ideas, at the Afghanistan Legal Education Project, we believe that one manner in which to approach uncertainty is to prepare a small cohort for the future: a group of Afghans that has studied other legal systems as well as its own; a group with sufficient education to articulate ideas before an electorate; and a group empowered to embrace, and protect, a collective form of Afghan government.

Legal education, in short, is concomitant with – maybe even requisite to – long-term security.

Several months ago, our organization came one step closer to fulfilling these ideals. Our project is now the grateful recipient of a $7.2 million grant from the US State Department. That money will allow us to embark on a project that has been a long time in the making: the development of a fully accredited law school in Kabul. Several years from now, a small group of Afghan students – the first of its kind in many respects – will graduate with internationally recognized legal degrees. 

To some, this may sound naive. There are those who argue that, without robust security, no progress can be made in Afghanistan. Perhaps, from America’s vantage, the fewer resources we expend in the lead up to the troop withdrawal, the better.

But if I had Jenn on the line right now, she would argue differently. We can remain conscious of uncertainty, she’d say, without abandoning our efforts. She’d remind me that the development of legal education in Afghanistan is likely to be the work of generations, rather than years.

She’d be right, of course – and, in delivering her message, she’d have articulated a complex, realistic, portrayal of Afghanistan. Policymakers and politicians, and the American people whose backing they seek, would do well to remember this more nuanced picture. That means US efforts to support education and the development of Afghan civil society should not be abandoned. Just as it means that these initiatives may require the patience – and persistence – of many years to bear fruit.

Julian Simcock is the student co-director of the Afghanistan Legal Education Project at Stanford Law School. The project works with academics in Kabul to develop legal curricula for the American University in Afghanistan, and is now developing a full, five year integrated law degree program. Julian and several other students traveled to Afghanistan in February 2012.

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