From the Front Line: U.S. Attorney in Afghanistan reflects on bin Laden's death

- Photo by Robert Chase


By Tom Kirvan

Legal News


Three months into his Afghanistan assignment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynn Helland has ridden a wave of emotions during his time in the capital of Kabul. The news late Sunday evening – early Monday morning in Afghanistan – that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had been killed by a team of U.S. operatives struck a particularly morbid and disconcerting chord for Helland.

At least for a moment.

As part of a U.S. led effort to help establish the “rule of law” in Afghanistan and to curb drug trafficking in the landlocked country, Helland was in the process of starting his work week when he was informed of the news that was reverberating around the world.

Almost simultaneously, his wife Cheryl, a physician in Ann Arbor, received a call from her parents at about 11 p.m. EDT informing her of the bulletin.

“At about the same time, in Kabul, I was hailed by a colleague as I stumbled to breakfast,” Helland related in an e-mail to The Legal News. “Cheryl’s folks said to her, and my colleague said to me, something along the lines of ‘can you believe the news?’ To which we were each told, ‘Obama’s dead!’ Causing each of us to have a roughly simultaneous gut-wrenching, heart-stopping, knee-quaking emotional/physical reaction. At which point we were each told, ‘I mean, Osama’s dead!’ When Cheryl and I spoke with each other, a few minutes later, we were still in the throes of the physical reaction to the first version we had heard.”

Several hours later, Helland was able to begin processing and digesting what had indeed happened in the war on terror, commenting that “the news of bin Laden’s death is huge here, both around the embassy and in the local Afghan community.” Good news, after all, has been in decidedly short supply in Kabul, where U.S. officials have been in “lockdown” for several days due to the Taliban spring offensive, according to Helland.

“This can sometimes be a tough place to sustain morale,” Helland said. “Our mission is a hugely complicated one, and it has been widely reported that there are some significant obstacles to almost everything we try to do. Some of those obstacles are self-induced, some are cultural, some are due to differences among governments, and some are the result of the insurgency. The insurgency itself is very complicated, with support not only in parts of Afghanistan, but also international. All of this can create, for many people, on many days, a feeling sort of like slogging uphill through soft sand while carrying a heavy load – we think we are making progress, but it is difficult, slow, and hard to measure.”

Morale has been sapped further by the 24/7 news cycle, Helland said, noting that the “observations are my own” and not necessarily those of “Embassy Kabul or the U.S. government.”

Said Helland: “The news we read about ourselves and our efforts is often negative. Again, the litany is familiar: civilians have been killed, government corruption remains rampant, the government remains ineffective outside the major cities, security is poor. Although there are a lot of people here working hard on a lot of positive things, we don’t see those daily efforts reflected very often in the press coverage.”

Against this backdrop, the news about bin Laden is a “tremendous morale booster for the personnel at Embassy Kabul,” said Helland, former chief of the Special Prosecution Unit for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit. “It is electrifying and energizing.”

The elation extends to many in the Afghan community, said Helland.

“I’ve also discussed the news with several Afghan civilians, and they, too, are elated,” he said. “The civilians with whom I have spoken report that the great majority of their countrymen feel the same way.

“Once the excitement is shared, though – whether with embassy personnel or with Afghan civilians – the talk about bin Laden’s passing quickly turns to its significance to the overall effort,” Helland reported. “Will his death turn him into a martyr, and therefore a stronger symbol for terrorists, or will it weaken the terrorist cause? We don’t know. Will it have any impact, positive or negative, on the day-to-day Taliban insurgency? We don’t know. Will it make the U.S. or Afghan government appear more legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people. Again, we don’t know. But these are the questions that will matter a week, month, or year from now, when this initial elation has passed, and they occupy the far greater part of our attention.”

Helland, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, volunteered for the Afghan assignment last fall, arriving there in late January with a principal mission of working with an anti-corruption task force. That original assignment soon shifted to anti-drug trafficking efforts, which focus on stemming the flow of money to the Taliban insurgency.

“It is impossible, here, to look at the efforts of those who oppose the Afghan government without considering the influence of foreign powers that would like to use Afghanistan for their own purposes,” Helland said. “We are well aware, here, that events in the region have a large impact here, and what happens here has an impact on the region. Afghans are also very familiar with that calculus. The Afghans with whom I spoke find it significant that bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in a home he occupied deep in a foreign country.”



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