Army unit works with Afghan prosecutor to combat corruption
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SALERNO, Afghanistan — The man behind the desk sits alone in a small wooden bee hut just outside the task force headquarters.
He is isolated except for the occasional law enforcement officer presenting a bloody suicide vest or other evidence — a foreigner in his own land.
Colonel H has reason to be that way.
A prosecutor with Afghanistan’s anti-terrorism intelligence service, Colonel H has a dangerous job, investigating and seeking conviction of bombing suspects. He is fighting not just insurgents waging war here, but a system of corruption so entrenched that it’s a powerful weapon on its own, often allowing even the most prolific bombers to walk free after capture.
The colonel embedded with U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan’s Khost province in February to help soldiers put together cases that could hold up in an Afghan court. The hope is to help block the myriad reasons — greased palms, high-level relatives, tribal or political affiliations — that often allow guilty men to go free.
“I am here to prepare the paperwork and the evidence so a court and a judge cannot release a guilty person,” said the senior prosecutor, who did not want his name revealed for fear he’d be killed.
Before he arrived, there were complaints about the lack of evidence for conviction.
“Now I am here,” he said. “We will tell the judge, ‘Look, we have evidence. There is no room for corruption here.’ ”
Revolving-door justice has been a persistent thorn in the side of NATO forces across Afghanistan, where troops often succeed in hunting down the cells that finance, create and plant the bombs that kill more soldiers than any other insurgent weapon, only to see the suspects released.
It’s a source of great frustration and has led many soldiers to question whether all their work is for nothing if the bombers simply walk.
In Khost, which has one of the highest bombing rates in eastern Afghanistan, the situation had become untenable.
After seven years of gathering and presenting evidence the American way, U.S. forces turned to the Afghan system, bringing in Colonel H, a veteran prosecutor with 35 years in the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s terrorism intelligence service.
His methods are working well, Americans say.
“The most important thing, I think, that we all missed the boat on, is that they had a system and we worked so hard to show them the American way of things,” said Tory Tyrell, a Houston police officer who is working with U.S. forces. “He’s really teaching us, showing us the way through their system, what we really should have learned years ago.”
The colonel agreed.
“For seven or eight years, there was a big gap,” he said. “They were operating according to American law and the two sides were not sharing information.”
It meant that the Americans would gather evidence on their own, then hand over a case file that would likely hold up in an American court. But for all its flaws — and corruption is a key undermining factor — the Afghan judicial system is in place, and the American case files did not fit the parameters.
In the U.S., the arresting agency usually conducts the investigations. In Afghanistan, that’s the job of the prosecutor, who was being left out of that process and was still expected to prosecute the suspect.
Reports were regularly emerging of prosecutors, along with police or judges, taking bribes to free a suspect. Those with the right connections were also walking free. In Wardak province last year, U.S. forces had reports that prosecutors received $15,000 each to release two suspects in a bombing involving U.S. soldiers.
In what is being seen as a test case for the rest of the country, the 101st Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team decided to bring a prosecutor on board to see whether he could help create winnable cases in an Afghan court.
They interviewed six or seven candidates and finally settled on Colonel H, who had years of experience in the courtroom and spent recent years setting up provincial prosecution offices across the country.
The colonel doesn’t speak English and must communicate with his new partners through an interpreter.
In April, he was still negotiating terms from behind his desk on the U.S. base, including a request for his own vehicle and security so he doesn’t have to depend on the Afghan police to cart him around the provincial capital and can move about without a convoy of American military vehicles.
Capt. Jill Glasenapp, the brigade provost marshal, said last week that her unit had found funding to better support the colonel and that a vehicle was in the works. She also said they were sharing more information, and it was helping streamline cases.
“By having him here, we can collect our evidence and fill that gap between us and Afghan law,” she said.
The 3rd Brigade believes the colonel is working out so well they are looking to expand the program with other prosecutors in Paktiya and Paktika provinces, Glasenapp said. There are plans to bring NDS prosecutors to the detention center at Bagram Air Field, where the lack of transparency surrounding the detainees is deeply controversial.
In February, U.S. forces took eight detainees and had to release seven because of the disconnect between the prosecutor and the evidence.
Those numbers showed a shift in March, Glasenapp said. Between April and May, the brigade, which operates in Khost, Paktika and Paktiya provinces, took a total of 56 detainees. Of those, 17 were prosecuted or are awaiting prosecution by the NDS. An additional 10 were sent to the detention center on Bagram.
That gave the brigade a retention rate of 48 percent, double the rate for the same period in 2009, when 47 detainees were taken and 12 were sent to the Bagram prison, she said.
Two of the current cases have won convictions with the colonel’s help, Glasenapp said. She expects the rest of the cases to go to trial in the next month.
Recently, Colonel H helped pull together a case involving four members of the same family. One brother was in detention at the Bagram Air Field and the colonel obtained a confession from him and developed evidence for a case against the entire family, Glasenapp said.
“It seems like it’s just one person,” said Maj. Griffin Mealhow, a tactical legal adviser for the Asymmetric Warfare Group, which is involved in the investigations and capture of IED suspects. “He brings a whole host of influence through the people he works for, and we have a whole better view of the system. It eliminates a lot of excuses.”