Afghan Prosecutors Key to Beating Taliban

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Robert C. O'Brien is the Co-Chair of the U.S. Department of State Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan and is the managing partner of Arent Fox LLP's Los Angeles Office. Stephen G. Larson is a retired federal Judge and a member of the Executive Committee of the Partnership. He is partner at Girardi Keese in Los Angeles.


Without well-equipped and honest Afghan prosecutors to bring criminal cases against the country's drug lords and terrorists, the sacrifices of our front line soldiers could be in vain. Police and counter-insurgency work alone is insufficient to stop the Taliban and narco-terrorists.

As we learned in this country, to combat organized crime, successful prosecutions and convictions of the traffickers and terrorists are required. Only then will Afghanistan's drug and terror networks be dismantled. Critical to this effort is paying Afghan prosecutors a wage sufficient to sustain their families.

The links between poppy cultivation, narco-trafficking, and the expanded Taliban insurgency could not be stronger. The drugs are funding both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, allowing terrorists to operate in wide swathes of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dirty money secures influence and power over local populations and officials. The money is also used to bribe Afghan prosecutors, thereby allowing criminals to escape justice and continue to operate against Afghan police and American soldiers and marines.

Merely increasing the size of coalition forces in the country will not defeat the insurgency if not coupled with robust law enforcement in Afghanistan. The DOD has told Congress that "to end the illegal narcotics trade it is necessary to dismantle the networks that enable it. U.S. Government efforts [must] focus on developing Afghan capability to identify and arrest drug traffickers and interdict shipments of drugs and money."

To increase the effectiveness of a criminal justice system that is permeated with corruption, the DOD recommended higher pay for Afghan National Police, judges, and soldiers. This step, which is being implanted, however, solves only part of the problem. Afghan criminal prosecutors must also be paid a salary that allows them to meet their expenses if corruption is to be rooted out of the justice system.

Prosecutors play a key role in the Afghan justice system. They are responsible for investigating all crimes following the arrest of suspects and presenting those cases in court. Thus, they handle much of the detective work that the police usually undertake in the United States. Where they receive proper support, such as in the Counter Narcotics Tribunal, which is supported by the DEA and DOJ, the results are impressive. The CNT is increasingly targeting and convicting higher-level dealers. Such work lead to the assassination of the CNT's chief judge, Alim Hanif, last year by suspected drug traffickers.

On recent trips to Afghanistan, we asked groups of senior prosecutors to raise their hands if they accepted bribes. None did. We then asked them to raise hands if they knew of other prosecutors who took bribes. All did. Their explanation for such corruption was simple: In Kabul, the average prosecutor is paid approximately $100 per month, while the basic cost of living is about $500 per month. While they acknowledged that some prosecutors took bribes out of greed, they claimed that most did so merely to support their families.

Compounding the problem of low salaries is the prosecutors' lack of equipment to conduct their investigations. They do not have vehicles to visit crime scenes and interview witnesses, they require cell phones and they need generators to power their equipment. It goes without saying that they do not have basic CSI tools to lift finger prints or take impressions of foot prints or tire marks much less deal with DNA evidence.

U.N. sources state that the five-year cost of increasing salaries of prosecutors and properly equipping them could reach over $100 million. Given the lack of resources of the Afghan government, it is unlikely that prosecutors' salaries will be increased without foreign assistance. Although the cost of paying Afghan prosecutors a reasonable wage and giving them to tools to successfully prosecute criminals is not insignificant, it is a price worth paying given the war effort in Afghanistan. An honest and effective Afghan criminal justice system will not be cheap, but without it, a just and stable Afghanistan will remain elusive.
By Robert C. O'Brien and Stephen G. Larson
Special to CBSNews.com
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