Criminal Law
March-April 2008

My adventure in the Wild East

Nelson Barnes

Assistant District Attorney in Bell County

What I did on my summer vacation: I worked to build the Rule of Law in Afghanistan.

“Are you crazy?” That was the response of Henry Garza, Bell County DA and my boss, when I told him I had put my name in the hat for a mentor position in Afghanistan in the summer of 2006. The question of my sanity was far and away the most common response to my decision to “help out overseas.”

I had been with Bell County more than 15 years and with the DA’s office more than 12 when I decided to apply. I always thought I would stay in the DA’s office for 30 years, then move on to something else; I never really imagined doing anything but saying, “The State is ready.” Then some friends told me that a project to establish the Rule of Law in Afghanistan was looking for American lawyers with law enforcement backgrounds. I have always been proud of my relationship with local police agencies, and the opportunity to work with police and prosecutors in a developing country just called out to me. Also, after 15 years in an office job, I figured a change of scenery might be a good thing.

The added benefit of embarking on  something of this large scale also included financial rewards. The salary was quite generous with a 35-percent bonus for the dangerous location and another 35 percent for being out of country—not to mention a big chunk was tax-free. This year abroad would allow me to do things for my family and our future that I never imagined on the county pay scale. With college getting closer, educational expenses (and the bonus of some nice family vacations) would become more than just wishful thinking.

So I filled out the paperwork and waited. About six weeks later (the Friday I returned from TDCAA’s annual conference in South Padre, in fact), I received an offer and a plane ticket for two weeks out. Getting ready to leave your family and gather the necessities for a year abroad in two weeks was a whirlwind. I had to take business clothes (even for a war zone), and I was allowed one checked bag. I laid everything out and then began to edit. It was a squeeze but it all fit, and a portrait of my 7-year-old and me, drawn by her for the occasion, topped things off. Thanks to the APO post office, other necessities including drink mix and cookies later followed.

I flew to Washington D.C. at the end of September 2006. I left behind my wife, Kathy, with four kids (ages 15, 13, 7, and 3), three dogs, a cat, and all the trappings of our life. I was excited and sad at the same time as I knew it would be months till I saw their faces, and the tears of my 7-year-old stayed with me all the way to D.C. I had a whole new appreciation for the folks at Fort Hood who have said goodbye to their families many times in the last few years, but my sadness was tempered with the excitement of a great adventure and the hope to make a difference somewhere.

Weapons and first aid

I was given rather cryptic instructions to rendezvous with some people I didn’t know at a rental car agency near Dulles Airport. It seemed almost “cloak and dagger” as we were given each other’s flight arrangements and told where to meet. We were then to drive to a hotel in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and await further instructions. At the hotel we were told to proceed the next morning to a training facility in Fredericksburg. The evening before, I had dinner with one of the guys who would become a really good friend, Jim Bothwell from San Antonio (a retired Air Force officer), and began my career as a contractor for the Department of State. We lived near each other for the rest of my tour and have even spent some leave time together over Mexican food since I got home. Jim is still working at the Ministry of the Interior (MOI), but we keep in touch.

The next morning we drove down winding dirt roads to an almost clandestine training facility in the Virginia woods. We were introduced to a number of Navy Seals and Special Forces guys who, in their words, were “going to do our best to make sure you can stay alive if the %@#$ hits the fan.” For three days, we were taught how to handle, clean, and use M-4 rifles, 9-mm pistols, and AK-47s. I was instructed how to call a helicopter for a pickup, navigate with a compass, read terrain maps, and how to apply a tourniquet or other first aid. These lessons were particularly geared to combat trauma, such as bullet wounds, bomb blasts, and knife wounds. A lot of the training was new to me as I have never served in the military. All the guys with me were retired officers.

If this training weren’t enough to get our attention, we were then given briefings on Afghan culture, the political situation, and some basic tactical survival skills. The training gave me pause about what I was getting into, but it was also exhilarating. For one thing, I was surprised by the ethnic diversity in Afghanistan; I did not know that so much foreign influence had created such a tribal structure. The different tribes became a constant issue in the year ahead. Making sure we provided representation of these different groups was an important issue to the Afghan government and thus to us. The instructors were great and at least made me feel like it might take a couple of minutes before the bad guys finished me off. We then had the pleasure of going to a clinic for whatever necessary inoculations we needed. There I learned the greatest lesson of my time: If you love your children, make sure that you keep their shot records up to date and readily available. I had no records so I got every shot: six in one arm and seven in the other. I cursed myself for not keeping better records. Needless to say, I then ran a fever for most of the next couple of days. Instead of enjoying the completion of training and celebrating the beginning of the adventure, I spent my last night in the U.S. laid up with some cold medicine and chicken from the KFC next to the hotel. It also made my first plane trip across the pond seem to last for two weeks.

The next afternoon I got on a plane in Washington, spent a seven-hour layover in Frankfurt, and arrived in Dubai at 9:30 the next evening. It was about 40 traveling hours from hotel to hotel, and I slept like the proverbial stone. The next day we had off in Dubai. I toured the city a little and recuperated from the proceeding week making sure I did not have to carry much. Little did I know that the real adventure was about to begin.

Kam Air (chickens welcome)

The next morning began with a five o’clock shuttle to the airport for what was supposed to be a 7 a.m. plane flight to Kabul. The plane ended up leaving at 9, something I learned was close to the real schedule. Kam Air does not seem to worry about keeping a schedule for its customers, but we had to deal with it as that airline is the only approved one for flying in and out of Kabul. It was notoriously late leaving Dubai and not much better on the return. If you were within two hours of the schedule, that counted as “on time.”

I had read that the boarding procedure was akin to the running of the bulls, and that is an understatement. Getting on the plane was an epic itself. Seat assignments were advisory at best, and it seemed that a hundred different languages were flying around as I just tried to find a place to sit down. The plane seemed really old, with a lot of exposed wires, and a guy down the way was carrying a live chicken. This was when I first had the thought, “What have you signed up for?” However, the flight went relatively smoothly, I adjusted to the different hygiene of some of my fellow passengers, and we safely made it to Kabul “Insha’allah” (God’s will).

Welcome to Kabul

We were met on the tarmac by some DynCorp employees who were carrying weapons and looked like soldiers of fortune. Most of the folks there on the police mission were from the South so at least they didn’t talk funny. Some of our mission worked at the airport so our trip through the customs line was very quick. I would learn this wasn’t always true on future flights (unless you had a little Baksheesh [gift] for the officials). We then went out, and I was introduced to Kabul for the first time. Particularly the dust and the smell. Many places—San Francisco, the French Quarter, and definitely Kabul—have a distinct smell to me. The country is covered in dust—a reminder of years of war where citizens burned trees and vegetation to keep warm. The air has an acrid smell as the Afghans will burn whatever they can to cook and fight off the cold. The smell of open sewers and piles of garbage also added to the odor. Yet somewhat offsetting this stench was the air coming down from the mountains; it was cool, pure, and clean. It was, as the country would unfold to me, a real contrast. I still say you could blindfold me, fly me around, unload me, and I could tell if I were in Kabul.

Everywhere were the signs of war: blown-up buildings, rutted roads, and wrecked military equipment. The armored truck we rode in bounced and swayed all over the road as they took us for weapons and lunch. Weapons and individual body armor (IBA) were first on the list and would become the No. 1 priority while in country; food was next. We then moved on to our new home for the next six months.

Third-World living

This is the part of the whole Third World experience that does not get any sympathy from my family and coworkers. We were housed in the heart of Kabul at a four-star hotel, The Serena (which was recently attacked in January 2008). I had my own room, and it became home for the following six months. After that, we then moved into a compound, and my cosmopolitan digs were replaced with one half of a military shipping container and a 7×20-foot (including bathroom) unit in one of our compounds. This change was a little less upscale, but it was much more social.

My time in Afghanistan began with a more intensive repeat of the training in Virginia. It was scheduled to take about a week but instead took two weeks as we were constantly interrupted by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other threats that limited or shut down our travel in the city. It became almost second nature to get the daily threat reports of what routes had intelligence of problems or what vehicles we were watching out for. We were constantly told to watch out for white Corollas, which is like saying, “Watch the pickup trucks” in Texas—white Corollas are common! I can’t say I ever got used to the explosions, but they did just become part of our life. Loud noises did tend to make me look for escape routes and what was around me. I guess the guys in Virginia did their job in training me!

Keeping busy

After the training, I was assigned as a mentor to the Chief of Legal Affairs for the Afghan MOI. His name was General Masood Ragheb. He, though not a lawyer, was in charge of all legal affairs at the ministry. The MOI in Afghanistan is the national police department for the country and has around 82,000 officers. (Afghanistan is approximately the geographic size of Texas, with 32 million citizens, compared to Texas’ 23.5 million.) The MOI is also responsible for all the district chiefs, mayors, provincial governors, and other governmental officials. These positions are all appointed among Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Just imagine mayors, county judges, and county commissioners all under one appointed roof.

I worked with Ragheb in developing an improved disciplinary system for the police. They still jailed officers who required professional discipline, which had no long-term effect; officers just spent a few days in jail and then went back to work. (I hope none of our electeds get any ideas from this practice!) We also flew out to different sites within the country to visit with prosecutors and police on problems they were having and what could be done to fix them. Flying in an old Russian military aircraft was an adventure in and of itself. (Catch me at a conference and I’ll really tell you about it.) The coordination between the police and prosecution in the country was all but nonexistent, and we tried to build these relationships into a more cohesive partnership. Communication was always a challenge as I had to work through an interpreter, and some concepts I tried to relate were not compatible with how things are done there. The idea of suspension without pay, for instance, was met with, “How can we take money from his family?” Or the idea of enhanced punishment came back with, “Each act is to itself.” These things took some “cussin’ and discussin’.” It made every day a new challenge but also kept things interesting.

My usual day involved getting to the MOI (not always an easy task), meeting with Ragheb or other officials in the morning, then going to meetings at Camp Eggers, a military base, in the afternoon. With so many bureaucracies as there are in Afghanistan, you can imagine the number of meetings!  Every meeting with an Afghan also invlvoled chai tea. You did nothing unless you had chai first. I found it so interesting that these big, burly, rugged guys (many of whom had fought in the mountains) would drink tea from china with saucers. It was a custom, one I learned to really like. I have some chai tea in my office now and the spicy smell makes me think back to good times in Kabul.

One of the more interesting international issues I was involved with had to do with some discoveries of a potential mass grave on an Afghan Army installation. This discovery involved meeting with Afghan officials, the U.S. military, the U.S. Embassy, and U.N. officials. We didn’t reach a resolution, but the situation is a good example of how we tried to coordinate efforts of the many agencies and agendas working in Kabul.

Me in intelligence?

In March I transferred to the Intelligence Directorate. My work there was more like what I do here in the DA’s office in coordination with our local police. The Intelligence Directorate is more like our FBI in that it not only oversees intelligence-gathering but also investigates and takes care of bank robberies, kidnappings, and other major (federal) crimes. I was more of an advisor in the directorate, coordinating with the military, advising on personnel issues and operations, and providing course training.

Setting up anti-corruption stings was a highlight of the experience. We built some really good cases including one against a provincial governor that was referred for prosecution. I had to learn some Afghan law and procedure, and it was fun—more of a working job than a book one. I still talked to Ragheb weekly and helped with those issues I could. He actually called me for more help after I was reassigned than when I was working with him. Afghan society is largely about relationships, and once you have made a bond, it can be very strong. I have gotten e-mails in broken English from him since I returned, and I wish I spoke Dari so I could better keep in touch. I later transferred to Internal Affairs and helped with some anti-corruption and internal audit measures in those units before I returned home.

Working in the dark

I really have gained an appreciation for things we take for granted here, which came from working not only with the Afghan police but also with prosecutors. Throughout most of January, it never got warmer than 18 degrees, yet these guys went to work everyday with no heat! I will always remember watching a court proceeding with everyone in overcoats or sitting with the director of intelligence in a scarf and gloves while he was at his desk.

The other fun thing was the lack of electricity. Power would go on and off at will—and off was more prevalent. It became second nature to sit in the semi-dark of the offices and discuss whatever issue the day had brought forth. The intermittant electricity also made me rethink our training methods. One time I was asked to do training on crime scene investigation for some new investigators. I sat down with a number of officers who were in Afghanistan with me, and we put together a course. I made PowerPoint slides and had my interpreter produce them in Dari. I luckily had some slideshow presentations on my laptop from past jury trials with pictures I could use as examples. After a few days of preparation, we remembered that we would not have electricity for the projector! Adapt, improvise, and overcome become the motto. We printed the slides on paper and made posters with tape and staplers. It reminded me of my early days in prosecution when we thought it was a big deal to have a poster printer. This kind of challenge was a daily thing and always kept things interesting.

Meeting the world

I worked with a wide assortment of international lawyers and military representatives from Macedonia, Italy, Nigeria, the Philippines, New Zealand, England, Australia, and others, which made for a very international experience—not to mention some very different views on how a criminal justice system should operate. I also worked closely, though not in a legal capacity, with a lawyer from Nepal. Our personal security was provided by Gurkhas from Nepal, one of whom was a lawyer. He could make more money doing security work in Afghanistan than back home practicing law! He was saving to work on his L.L.M. (advanced law degree) when he returned home. We had some great discussions, and he was fascinated with our system. One of the most treasured items I have from my time in Kabul is a Gurkha knife he brought me back from his leave.

What makes your truck shake

One of the most exciting mornings came in June. I was driving myself, a ghurka, and a couple of other mentors to the MOI. We were inching along in the usual morning traffic (think downtown Houston mixed with I-35 in Austin at 7:55 a.m.) when we felt the truck wheels lift off the ground. After a quick gathering of our senses, we saw smoke rising about 200 meters in front of us. Just past our turn to the MOI, a suicide bomber had gotten onto a bus filled with instructors for the police academy and detonated himself. He killed 35 of our colleagues. We were able to move out of traffic and get to the safety of the MOI compound. After the adrenalin wore off, I was happy that nobody on our team had panicked but rather had followed most of the procedures we had been taught about looking for exit routes or what store we would move into if we had to get out of the truck. My wife did not find that comforting.

Coming home

I was gone for a little less than a year, and when asked to renegotiate my contract for a new position, I decided instead to return home. It was timely as the office had an opening, and Henry (in an obvious moment of madness) hired me back. I flew in on a Tuesday and came back to work the next morning. I am thrilled to be back announcing “ready” for the State and seeking justice for the good citizens of Bell County and Texas. I had missed being in the courtroom. A couple of months before I came back, we were discussing staying around Afghanistan, and I remember saying, “This coaching is fun, but I think I have a few starts left in me.” Getting back in trial has been glorious.

I learned a lot about myself and the world during my time in Kabul. For one, I can fly around in “retired” Russian helicopters and survive. And I really appreciate those folks in uniform who leave their families time and again to protect us. In my own life, I really love hearing “Daddy’s home!” at the end of the day, having a justice system that people by and large have faith in, that the lights come on, that I can work in an office without wearing gloves or speaking through an interpreter, that I no longer smell like we must have while there (a trunk of my things shipped home reeked when opened a month or so later), and that I have a wife who let me live my adventure and held down the fort with four kids and no relatives close by. (Kathy, thank you!) And chicken fried steak is even better after you haven’t had it for a while.

I left many friends in Kabul and felt guilty over Christmas that I was home and many of them were still fighting the fight and helping the Afghans build a future for themselves. I wished I could have left with a system up and running for them, yet I know that it will not be done on any quick timetable. It takes years to achieve what we in the United States have. Look at the 200-plus years in our system—and we still have to work at it everyday. I believe that the future resides with the kids over there. The young Afghans I worked with love their country and want it to be part of the modern world, but it will take a generation or two. If we help them and stay the course, I see it happening. Afghanistan as a safe and secure place will be enticing to the world: The scenery is magnificent, the food is intriguing, and the people are extremely warm and friendly.

I hope that those who are working over there come home safely and those who follow them eventually see an Afghanistan where I can someday take my kids. I would love to show them where Daddy spent that Christmas we shared via webcam and let them taste the exotic flavors that were so much of my experience. Until then, I pray for those folks on the other side of the world and remember that when I get to announce that the State is ready, I hope my old friends in Afghanistan are seeking justice like I am.