Excerpted from Stanford Lawyer magazine
STANFORD— Afghanistan is an unlikely classroom for Stanford Law School students. In the grip of war since 2001 — the second major foreign military intervention in 30 years—it is a country struggling to find its way to peace and stability. Essential to these aims is the development of the rule of law. But it is a nation of the young – where the median age is just 18 and the people are yearning for education. As more students aspire to attain a university degree, many eager to participate in rebuilding their country, a group of Stanford Law students is helping to meet the challenge of establishing legal education in this fledgling democracy.
Rose Ehler and Daniel Lewis returned from a trip to Kabul in February. Both are second-year law students midway through their term as co-executive directors of Stanford’s Afghanistan Legal Education Project (ALEP), leading the fifth student management team since the project launched in 2007.
Lewis recalls a sign at Kabul airport, “Welcome to the land of the brave,” which greets guests and cautions them as well. “But Kabul is really another world,” he says. “It’s a bustling city, with beat-up shanties, partially destroyed buildings, and strip malls. War torn but also booming. And then you see the beautiful mountains surrounding it.”
The trip was a culmination of months of hard work for the Stanford Law students on the ALEP leadership team who made the journey this year – likewise for the students who traveled there before them. For those involved at the launch of ALEP, dealing with legal curricula that predated such developments as drafting the 2004 constitution and coping with the severe shortage of printed texts were paramount.
But legal education in Afghanistan has come a long way in four short years, and ALEP has made a significant contribution to that progress. At the project’s inception, the group partnered with the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) -forming a union that has been instrumental to the success of both. When it was opened in 2006, the Kabul-based university was a new venture with no legal program. ALEP founders, Alexander Benard ’08 and Eli Sugarman ’09, approached Stanford vice president and general counsel Debra Zumwalt ’79, and suggested that they help develop one. Since ALEP was born, approximately 330 Afghan students have completed.
The legal program’s mission is somewhat audacious: the develop an innovative legal curricula to help Afghanistan’s universities train the next generation of lawyers and leaders. But this is a dedicated group.
“It’s like running a company,” says Ehler. “We have weekly meetings. Daniel and I delegate to our teammates, trusting that things will get done. There are a lot of different balls in the air at any one time – someone working on translation or on military outreach, others handling urgent e-mails or talking with the U.S. department of commerce.” The list goes on.
Then there’s managing the $1.3 million grant from the state department. “ It’s a job to make sure we’re reporting everything correctly,” says Lewis of the grant, which funds one of the five law faculty positions at AUAF, plus expenses such as printing and travel.
While the country’s constitution became the official law of the land when it was ratified, Islamic and tribal laws continue to play strong roles in the legal system. ALEP’s principal focus is researching, writing, and publishing high-quality, original legal textbooks that include an emphasis on the application of secular laws and how they might co-exist with local customs and religious rules.
“We are not engaging in legal imperialism,” says Erik Jensen, co- director of Stanford Law’s Rule of Law program. “Local practice and culture are necessarily part of our view.”
To date, ALEP has published three textbooks, all in English, which are among the first to specifically address Afghanistan’s post-2004 legal system: An Introduction to the Law of Afghanistan(second edition and now available in Dari), Commercial Law of Afghanistan, and Criminal Law of Afghanistan. A fourth text, International Law of Afghanistan, is in its final stages, and a fifth, Constitutional Law of Afghanistan, will be available late 2011. All of ALEP’s publications are available online for free use and distribution. Additional Dari and Pashto translations are forthcoming.
The February trip was an opportunity to visit AUAF and Kabul University, to hear feedback on books and curriculum already in use, and to assess needs going forward. The team met with law faculty and senior members of the afghan government, including the chief justice, the deputy minister of justice, and a commissioner on human rights. One meeting with the dean of Kabul University ended with a request for 1,200 ALEP texts.
Equally important, though, were the meetings with students at the project.
“The young people do have a sense of optimism,” says Lewis. “There is a generational divide. They see what’s going on in the government and want to change it.”
“When you ask the students about why they take our classes, they say they want to understand what’s going wrong in Afghanistan. They know that corruption is a problem, and they’ve asked for a book on anticorruption,” says Ehler. “It all turns on their sense of obligation and ability to not succumb to corruption.”
AUAF students who complete the current three-year legal studies curriculum receive a certificate in Legal studies—a key qualification for those pursuing a career in government.
Collaborating with afghan colleagues and seeking advice from educational and governmental influencers are key to the success of ALEP. So team members used their time in Kabul for face-to-face discussion about the prospects of further developing the legal curriculum at the project – taking it from a three-year certificate program for which students minor in law to a five-year accredited program with a major in law.
One step is developing an understanding of the current state of the legal system in Afghanistan.
However, the work of ALEP is not done in a vacuum. Part of the group’s research involves understanding where their afghan students will work and matching the education that ALEP helps to shape with the needs of the country. There are traditional avenues for a legal career via government services and the judiciary. There are also opportunities within government ministries, as well as at international organizations—both governmental and nongovernmental. The legal market in Afghanistan is evolving, with the tradition of informal dispute resolution offering limited but growing opportunities for lawyers in the private sector. As the country’s drug trade makes way for other trade—and as education and civil society take hold—lawyers will be required and the law will play a greater role in society.
“Afghanistan has tremendous human resource needs across the board. And we know that a lot of lawyers become leaders—law is an incubator for leadership,” says Jensen. “Whether our graduates practice law, work in business, or work in the government, they will benefit from these courses, which enhance their understanding of the rule of law, good governance, and government function.”
“I met one student who is taking a night class at AUAF. He works at Afghan Radio, but much of what he reports on has to do with the law,” says Ehler.
“Another student, after taking the commercial law class, said his boss was like ‘here write this contract,’” adds Lewis.
“Our books are showing up everywhere—in the U.S. military, in the Afghan government, in law schools throughout Afghanistan. The attorney general had our law text on his website for a period of time,” says Jensen.
Before rushing off to the airport for a flight to Bhutan, Jensen offers one last thought:
“This project has changed me in a way that I didn’t expect in the span of a twenty-five year career in the field of international rule of law. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed teaching and interacting with Stanford Law students, who doesn’t? But when you see able and inquisitive students taught by able faculty in classes that you’ve worked on designing and resourcing, in a place like Afghanistan, it’s absolutely magical. It has taught me that I can be even more passionate about this work than I thought possible.”
- Sharon Driscoll