Afghan musings-- An attorney's first report from war-torn Afghanistan

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Last Monday, the night before a blizzard was expected to rock Southeastern Michigan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynn Helland headed out of town.

It was fortuitous timing for Helland, who dodged the area's first major snowstorm of the year for very good reason. He was embarking on a year-long assignment in Afghanistan, where he will be part of a U.S. Department of Justice task force working to establish the "rule of law" in the war-ravaged country. For the next 12 months, Helland will be working with prosecutors and judges in the host country to curb the spread of public corruption.

Helland, former chief of the Special Prosecution Unit for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit, has agreed to "stay in touch" during his time in Afghanistan, periodically submitting personal reports from foreign soil. His first e-mail correspondence arrived on February 4. An edited version appears below.

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The nutshell version is that I've made it to Kabul, and don't yet know the details of what I'll be doing. Am thinking of perhaps taking a timeout and heading to Egypt for a few days of R&R, though.

It's a mistake to sleep on the plane from USA to Dubai, because it then becomes impossible to sleep during the Dubai night, no matter how lousy you feel! Long flight, very smooth, and it was a wide-body plane, so there was almost no sensation of flying. Except for the fact that one is confined for many hours to a tiny seat with no room in front and no place to stretch. Every international flight I've been on has included great food, but not this one. Must be a reason it was the cheapest fare . . .

Dubai is a very nice and modern city (at least from appearances -- had no chance to get out into it), but it feels sort of bizarrely out of place -- a big, modern, hugely water and energy consuming city, right on the edge of a desert, with not very much around it.

Travel note -- in what was probably a cosmic move to heighten the contrast between pre-Afghan and Afghan life, my Dubai hotel was the very nice Intercontinental, which must have been out of the non-smoking rooms they set aside for the government rate folks, because they put me up in a top floor suite -- two bedrooms, three baths, large living room. Could have fit about five of my hooches in it, I think.

Flew Afghanistan's national airline -- Safi -- from Dubai to Kabul. It's one of the few airlines that will fly to Afghan airports. Couldn't help but notice that the passengers were about 90 percent male. Seemed like almost every passenger was headed to some kind of war-related effort.

From the 30,000-foot level, the land between Dubai and Kabul was striking for its apparent desolation. It looked brown and empty -- of vegetation and people -- for hundreds of miles. It's hard to imagine people making a living there.

First thing you notice on landing in Kabul is the air. It smells like lots of people are burning garbage and wood. The day I got here was the first day of rain in a very long time, which was supposedly great for the air quality. Which doesn't bode well for what the air quality must be like when it is not raining.

Between the dimly lighted airport that feels like a big warehouse that's been compartmentalized, the heavy smell of the air, the lack of any greenery, and the cold rain, it was a pretty dreary first impression.

Took an armored SUV from the airport to the embassy. Can't be more than a mile or two, but it took about 45 minutes because of the traffic. Seemed to make a mockery of the anti-terror course I had, which cautioned us to not get stuck in traffic. The traffic flow might have been better, but it seemed as though there are no rules. For example, with three solid and gridlocked lanes of cars heading, say, north, there would occasionally be cars swimming up that stream! Apart from the crazy traffic, the trip was routine.

Was greeted at the embassy by a half dozen of my new colleagues, who'd been waiting in the rain for about 45 minutes for the purpose of giving a welcome! They insisted on carrying my bags, and overall demonstrated real "Fight True" spirit!

One of my big concerns was sharing a hooch with another person, but it turns out that was no worries -- I got a single! It's about 8'x20', and pretty Spartan. Very critically, though, it does have good Internet access, and a phone that allows calls to and from The States for either nothing or close to it. I'm not sure a person really needs any more than that, to tell the truth.

Was supposed to go to the range yesterday, but the range ended up being locked down because of a nearby explosion. No word yet as to the cause of the explosion. Will be taking my first trip outside the protected embassy/military base zone in the morning.

The embassy has a very military feel to it, with many tons of sandbags everywhere, lots of blast walls, and everything is utilitarian to the max. But, up above the embassy walls, on a clear day (that is, I think, post-rain and pre-return of pollution), it's easy to see mountains in the distance, some covered with snow and looking pretty majestic!

I'm anxious to take and send pictures, but my understanding is that they're pretty anal-retentive about that sort of thing. I should get a day-long orientation on Monday, at which I hope to be told that yes, it is okay to take and send pictures. If so, then those will be in the future.

Am also hoping to get a sense of what I'm supposed to be doing!! Hopefully that, too, will be in the near future.

Oh -- once a week, on Fridays, a bazaar is set up at the military base next door to the embassy. Went there today, and was struck by the number of nice merchants who were anxious to make me a good deal because I'm such a good friend of theirs. What wonderfully friendly people . . .

Published: Wed, Feb 9, 2011

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