Aftermath: Afghanistan situation hits home for attorney

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

The toppling of Afghanistan , after nearly 20 years of American military involvement in the war-torn country that has been aptly named the “Graveyard of Empires,” hit home for Lynn Helland, executive director and general counsel of the Judicial Tenure Commission.

Helland, a former assistant federal prosecutor in Detroit, spent 15 months in the Afghan capital of Kabul from the winter of 2011 to the spring of 2012 as an envoy for the U.S. Department of Justice, working with prosecutors and judges in the host country to help establish the “rule of law.”

Six months after he arrived at the American Embassy in Kabul, Helland was joined by his wife, Cheryl Huckins, an elder care physician, who handled assorted medical duties there while also assisting with the processing of visa applications for Afghan citizens.

As a married couple, Helland and Huckins have been known to visit faraway countries that aren’t exactly high on too many travel lists.

In 2005, not long after the tiny island country of Sri Lanka was devastated by a tsunami that rocked Southeast Asia in December 2004, the couple began a series of trips to the nation off the southern coast of India to help prop up the Grace Care Center there. The Center served as a combination orphanage, daycare, vocational training facility, and nursing home for more than 100 residents.

Their volunteer efforts in Sri Lanka, which spanned more than 5 years, were often a thankless task, even if they admitted that it was “good preparation” for their respective roles in Afghanistan.

“When we went to Afghanistan in 2011, we knew that the odds were small that the country would be stabilized according to our Western preferences,” Helland and Huckins wrote in an e-mail to The Legal News. “We also knew, though, that the future was not yet written and might beat the odds, and we were honored to be part of the effort to write a future for Afghanistan that would improve the lives of its people.

“Once we were there, it was apparent that the central government was not well connected with the Afghan people, and that the cronyism that has been so thoroughly documented by others was, indeed, endemic,” they indicated.
“For these reasons, the government did not have deep support from the people. On a macro level, our time in Afghanistan underscored how nearly impossible it is to change a culture. We also observed that our method of trying to change the culture was not well designed for success. Our effort relied on thousands of people from the United States, Great Britain, Norway, and other countries, most of whom came to Afghanistan for a few months, or a year, or perhaps two years, and then left. These thousands of people had minimal exposure to Afghan culture before beginning their work. Relatively few Afghans speak English, and very few westerners speak Dari or Pashtun, so we could only communicate through interpreters. Those interpreters were raised in Afghan culture, and often our concepts were foreign to them.”

Such obstacles, according to Helland and Huckins, eventually would prove too difficult for Westerners to overcome.

“What this means is that those thousands of people from Western culture, who were largely unfamiliar with the radically different Afghan culture, tried to communicate ideas that were foreign to the Afghans through interpreters who did not really understand the ideas in the first place,” Helland and Huckins said. “Worse, we were not aware, upfront, that this communication problem existed and was very real.”

By way of illustration, Helland said he was in Afghanistan for about six months before beginning “to feel as though I was starting to have a shared understanding of the most basic Western ideas of due process with Afghan prosecutors and interpreters with whom I dealt.”

Added Helland: “Meanwhile, the Afghans were incentivized, by the large amounts of money we made available to them, to pay lip service to what they thought we were asking, but had little incentive to speak with us candidly about the ways in which our ideas completely failed to mesh with their culture. Very few of the thousands of Westerners stayed long enough to develop real rapport with their Afghan counterparts.

“For all of these reasons, once we were there, we slowly came to appreciate how much harder than we anticipated was the goal of stabilizing Afghanistan, in accord with Western principles of equality and fairness and good government.”

And yet, said Helland, he and his wife were heartened by the strength and courage displayed by many of the Afghan citizens they came to know.

“Although the obstacles to institutional and cultural change proved to be insurmountable, my wife and I were struck by the many courageous and talented Afghan individuals with whom we worked,” Helland said. “We who live in a world that is essentially stable cannot imagine what it took for Afghan citizens to join our effort. Those who did had to be constantly aware that the Taliban were everywhere, and were not supporters of any Afghan working with us.
In many cases, the Afghans could not even tell their families that they worked with us, both for their safety (they could never know who might say a careless word) and for the safety of their families. Their danger was real and constant, and yet, they worked with us reliably and with outstanding spirits day after day. There were many heroic accounts of Afghans pulling U.S. forces out of burning Jeeps, risking their own safety.”

Helland and Huckins said that the Afghan citizens who assisted U.S. efforts to install a law-abiding system of government “are the people we think about”.

“We are not surprised at the current state of affairs in Afghanistan – from our perspective, it has long been only a question of when we would no longer prop up the government, and how quickly the government would then fail,” Helland and Huckins said. 

“But we agonize for the people who worked with us to improve their country, and are now targets: the doctors who worked at the embassy during the day, and after a full day, went to work at their own office or hospital late into the evening; the women who strove to improve the lot of all women in Afghanistan; the teachers who sought to teach their students to think critically rather than doctrinally; the lawyers, prosecutors and judges who sought to introduce meaningful due process of law. Those people all gambled with their lives to be part of the effort we led, and we fear for those whose lives may now be forfeit; or who, under the best of circumstances, will be driven from their home.”




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