Our convoy departed at 0400 in eight up-armored Humvees, two Ford Rangers and a Mahindra jeep. Heading north, we passed Bagram Airbase and began the ascent up into the Hindu-Kush Mountains. The Afghan summer heat had melted the snow that had blocked passage through the Salang Tunnel at roughly 11,000 feet.
My interpreter, “A.J.”; a JAG officer (and fellow Hoosier), Hal Johnston; and I accompanied a platoon plus in their mission to relieve a similar platoon stationed at the newly constructed regional command just outside of Mazar-i-Sharif. Hal had requested to accompany me with the infantry platoon in armored guntrucks.
In the fall, five months earlier and before the snow, the infantry platoon we were traveling to replace had a “small” traffic accident. Even a small accident with an up-armored Humvee can, and did, cause injury to a passenger in an Afghan civilian vehicle. Wisely, the platoon leader had taken a picture of the injured passenger and saved the GPS coordinates of the accident. He also reported to me and the rest of the command that the accident was indeed the fault of the U.S. Army.
As we reached the coordinates, we pulled our convoy off the dirt road, set security and started our search for the victim who had been injured five months previously. A.J., in perfect Dari, showed the picture to several locals who replied that they knew the gentleman and would go and bring him to us immediately. Three hours later a small, frail, very nervous man matching the picture emerged from the back of a beat-up white and yellow Toyota Corolla. As we approached the Afghan who had been summoned by the Americans, I noticed that he was shaking … with fear.
At the time, in Afghanistan, “fault” and “responsibility” had a very different meaning from what we understand in the United States. If the other driver was an employee, distant relative or friend of a warlord, the accident was your fault. There were no juries, lawyers or fact finders. Facts of the accident did not matter. What mattered was your position, status or relationship.
To this poor Afghan who had been hit by a U.S. Humvee five months previously, the Americans were the warlords. In his mind, we certainly had returned to find him and recover from him, and his village, the damage he had done to our Humvee.
I asked the man through A.J., “Were you involved in an accident with U.S. troops last fall?” The man shook with fear so much that the other Afghans around him propped him up so he would not fall. He nodded affirmatively.
Hal, the JAG officer, stepped forward and said, “I have come here on behalf of the United States.” The Afghan’s face was pale, and he clearly anticipated that Hal’s next words would reveal his fate. Instead, Hal reached into his field expedient briefcase and pulled out a handful of Afghan money.
“We are here to make it right.” As Hal counted off the payment into the shaking and dirty Afghan hand, I saw a face I will never forget. On the bearded and weathered Afghan, whose eyes were now tearing in disbelief, I witnessed the face of justice. At that moment, we were no longer tyrants. We were there to ensure justice was served. This Afghan, and his entire village, stared in disbelief. Revealed to them, for the first time, were the warlords taking responsibility and attempting to provide justice.
The United States shines like a beacon of light to the world – not just because we possess the most capable military in the history of mankind – because each American is accountable to laws that are equally enforced and independently adjudicated. The adoption of the rule of law into the American way of life is distinct and envied by much of the world. Certainty in the application of laws, impartial procedure and an independently determined outcome assure liberty and are necessary ingredients in a free society. As Americans, we too often take for granted the vital and necessary role the American approach to the rule of law plays in maintaining the American way of life. Americans, and more specifically attorneys, should guard no differently against an executive that picks and chooses which laws to enforce, than against a judiciary that inconsistently applies our laws. Truly, the single greatest quality the United States can export is our commitment to the rule of law.•
Christopher Lee is a partner in Kahn Dees Donovan & Kahn and is a director of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana. The opinions in this article are those of the author.