About the Author: Karen Hall is a Foreign Affairs Officer and head of the Administration of Justice Team in INL's Office of Afghanistan/Pakistan.
I first visited the Kabul Women's Detention Facility in 2006. A little boy with an open sore on his face stared up at me with huge brown eyes. He was incarcerated with his mother, which is the practice in Afghanistan due to the lack of social services or other custody mechanisms. I remember other women detainees smiling, despite the crumbling building they lived in. The environment was austere, but the mothers and corrections officers were clearly trying to make the best of it: They had formed an ad hoc nursery school, and the few literate women in the group were teaching the children to read. I was visiting the detention facility as part of my assignment with the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). My Afghanistan posting was supposed to be temporary -- two months, which stretched into two years. I couldn't go home yet; we had too much work to do.
Some people in government jokingly call INL the “thugs and drugs” bureau, and I like to tell my parents I work for the “thugs” part. I'm the “Administration of Justice” team leader in INL's Afghanistan/Pakistan office. Before I joined the State Department, I used to work for a K Street law firm and enjoyed a plush office and a higher salary. Though I now find myself in a cubicle in the basement of a State Department annex contending with sometimes overwhelming paperwork, you couldn't convince me to change jobs. INL is on the frontlines of working with our in-country partners in promoting human rights, transparency, and accountability, defending our national security, and securing the constitutional rights of citizens in nascent democracies. My team receives funding from Congress for criminal justice reform, including corrections reform, which is specifically for foreign assistance projects. That means we can go beyond doing assessments and writing reports, and do the operational work to help solve the problems we identify.
I think that in the time that INL has been running these programs, we've learned some valuable lessons about working with local governments to build justice systems. We've learned it isn't enough to train legal practitioners; we must also create the capacity for their organizations to plan, budget, communicate, and delegate responsibility. We've learned that process reform is just as important as legislative reform -- if a criminal case gets stuck in the system and can't swiftly move from police to prosecutor to courts to corrections, then it doesn't matter how elegantly crafted the legal codes are. We've learned that education is paramount: educating the public is an effective way to inspire them to demand good governance and rule of law, and educating attorneys and judges sets up a framework that provides benefits for generations. And through it all, attention to culture is key. Assistance programs that respect Afghan culture produce far better results, especially with regard to sustainability, than those that try to impose foreign values.
The projects we're implementing in Afghanistan right now recognize and incorporate the lessons we've learned. We've hired twice as many Afghan lawyers as Americans, and are proud to work closely with them, recognizing the risks they take to help build their country's future. We help justice institutions put modern personnel policies in place, ensuring that the most qualified candidates are placed in appropriate jobs. We work with police and prosecutors engaged in preventing and punishing domestic violence. We hire American corrections professionals to conduct nationwide training and mentoring of Afghan corrections officers, not just in basic skills but also in specialized skills such as emergency response, leadership, and record-keeping. We're starting public education programs, and have grant agreements with universities and NGOs across the United States to develop more rigorous law school curricula, to give graduate-level training to law professors, to help improve prison conditions, to develop linkages with some aspects of the Afghan tribal justice system, and to build civil society organizations in Afghanistan.
If you were to take a tour of the Kabul Women's Detention Facility today, you wouldn't get the same tour that I did in 2006. Two years ago, international donors funded a new building. INL provided the day-to-day training and mentoring of the Afghan staff at the facility. The new building is airy and well-lit, and the women and children are living in clean and safe conditions. There is a large bright room set aside that serves as a school for the children. The officers are well-trained, the facility is secure, standard operating procedures exist and are followed, and the atmosphere is calm. I love my job.