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Provided By Lt Col. Robert Church
Lt. Col. Robert Church, an Orem city prosecutor, poses with two Afghan children during a humanitarian assignment.

Many members of the recently returned 1st. Corps Artillery faced hot combat against the Taliban on the battlefronts of Afghanistan during their yearlong tour of duty.

But among their ranks are three soldiers, all from Utah County, who fought against injustice on a different kind of battlefront — the courtrooms of Afghanistan.

In civilian life, Lt. Col. Robert Church, Capt. Dusty Kawai and Maj. Paul Waldron are hometown prosecutors and defense attorneys. Church works as an Orem city prosecutor, Kawai is a defense attorney with Esplin & Weight in Provo, and Waldron is a lawyer with Scribner & McCandless PC in Provo. But a year ago, they were deployed as JAG officers who trained the staff judge advocates of the Afghanistan National Army on military judicial procedures.

While the U.S. military has taken a strong hand in training the Afghan army for nearly six years, they are the first JAG officers to train the legal officers. For more than a year, the three officers challenged corruption, faced death threats, endured setbacks and saw the progress of a fledgling military judicial system in their quest to establish rule of law.

Church, Kawai and Waldron arrived in Afghanistan on Aug. 20, 2006. Originally, they were activated to work in civil affairs such as building community wells and bridges, but a JAG official reassigned them to become legal mentors in the cities of Kabul, Gudar and Kandahar.

When they arrived at their assigned bases, they soon received reports of blatant corruption among high-level Afghan officers. Many would steal military supplies, abuse young soldiers in their battalions and engage in racketeering, charging local villages "protection fees." Others were cogs in the drug-trafficking machine.

The Afghan military legal teams were eager to prosecute low-ranking soldiers for petty theft and assault, but Church was frustrated that they winked at crimes perpetrated by high-ranking officers with far-reaching political connections.

"They weren't prosecuting or investigating them," he said. "They were just accepting it as a part of the culture."

Almost immediately, the three JAG officers took a direct hand in prosecuting crooked senior officers.

Rule of law

A few months into his deployment, Kawai received reports that a battalion commander had drugged and sexually assaulted a young soldier, which, he said, is an all-too-common practice in Afghanistan. Kawai and his ANA counterpart traveled to the base where the assault reportedly happened and began looking for the soldier, who had fled to the mountains.

Three days into their search, the soldier came to them at night. He had heard they were looking for him, and his friends sneaked him onto the military base disguised in civilian clothes.

With tears in his eyes, the soldier told Kawai he intended to kill the battalion commander. In a long, desperate conversation, Kawai pleaded with the young man not to take the law into his own hands.

"Please believe we will do all we can to bring him to justice," he said. Eventually, the soldier agreed.

"But if you fail," the young man warned, "I will kill him myself."

Kawai and his ANA counterpart prosecuted the commander. They presented a mountain of physical evidence and witness testimony to prove the assault. Though the evidence was staggering, there was a chance the commander would get off free. He had many powerful friends. Parliament members with an interest in the case advised the judges to drop it.

Despite the pressure, the judges sentenced the commander to five years in prison. He appealed his sentence, but the ruling stood. Kawai said it was the first instant he's heard of any high-ranking Afghan officer being sentenced to serve time in jail for a crime.

After the sentence was handed down, Kawai asked the soldier who was assaulted if he was satisfied with the trial's outcome. The soldier, again with tears in his eyes, thanked Kawai.

"This is more than what I hoped for," he said.

As Kawai left the courtroom, throngs of young soldiers swarmed around him, anxiously asking about the trial's outcome. When he told them, they cheered. Some pulled out their cell phones. Within minutes, hundreds of soldiers knew the trial results.

"It showed the Afghans that on the horizon there is a time when the rule of law is applicable to everyone," Kawai said.

Not everyone was happy with the trial's outcome, or Kawai's aggressive mentoring style. The Afghan core commander at the base Kawai was assigned to got phone calls from Parliament demanding to know why the legal team was investigating military leaders. Close friends warned him they heard a $500 contract on his life was issued while Kawai was investigating another battalion commander.

"I knew I was creating enemies" he said. He wasn't deterred.

Letdowns, victories

His fellow JAG officers also enjoyed their share of victories, though not every case concluded with a happy ending.

Church also trained legal teams that convicted high-profile officers. While he was at the Kabul Military Training Center, two sergeants assaulted an Afghan recruit. At trial's end, one received five years in jail and the other received eight years. But he also experienced his share of high-profile letdowns.

Church and his legal team accepted the challenge of prosecuting a one-star general with an extreme penchant for violence. They had nearly 30 witness statements, including testimonies of dozens of soldiers he'd assaulted and beaten. But the general was a brilliant strategist with an ace in his hand — political allies.

"He was very good at what he did," Church said. "He was also very violent and very corrupt and very evil."

They managed to take him into custody and prosecute him, but outside forces played a strong hand. Witnesses changed their stories, others refused to testify. The judges convicted the general of a single assault charge, but he only served 52 days in jail. Church was disappointed with the ultimate outcome of the trial.

"From a theoretical point of view, the case was a success because we did an appropriate investigation," he said, "but ... he didn't get fired, he didn't get transferred. He went right back to his job."

Waldron also faced setbacks. Kandahar — a place he dubbed the Wild West of Afghanistan — is a region where the most heated combat between U.S. troops and the Taliban plays out. Afghan legal staffers were afraid to serve there.

But Waldron said the region wasn't as dangerous as it seemed. Camp Hero, the base where he was posted, was never rocketed.

"They were very poor shots," he said of enemy combatants.

Waldron tried to carry out his legal mentoring duties, but the region only had 20 percent of the required legal staff. He trained leaders and soldiers for six months before he was reassigned to humanitarian projects with the Commanders Emergency Relief program.

Despite the setbacks, Church said they saw a noticeable decrease in corruption, but the country still has a long way to go.

"With any fledgling system there's going to be bumps in the road, so our model is we're taking baby steps," he said.

Time to grow

Up until a year and a half ago, the Afghan military justice system was based on outdated Soviet codes, Waldron said. The rising generation eagerly accepts the new military justice code based on the U.S. Uniformed Military Code of Justice, but the older generation still clings to the former system.

"In many aspects, we cannot expect Afghanistan to progress too fast," he said.

In the meantime, Church said he's already seen a rising crop of courageous prosecutors, including his counterpart, Col. Kaliq.

Kaliq challenged the status quo before the U.S. JAG officers showed up.

"He's fearless," Church said.

Two months before Kaliq joined up with Church, a thug ransacked his house to pressure him into dropping an investigation against senior officers. Fortunately, he wasn't home at the time, and his 13-year-old son evaded the intruder.

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The staff Kawai coached also grew into brave prosecutors over the course of a few months. When the core commander of the base would try to bully them into dropping investigations against senior officers, they insisted that the law trumped all other vested interests.

"We don't work for you," they would say. "We work for the law."

The ultimate goal of the legal mentoring system is help the Afghan people reach a point where they won't need trainers to shadow them where they go, Kawai said. It may take a while, but he's optimistic they will be able to adapt to the new military legal system.

"It's a nation of warriors," he said. "It's just going to be a matter of them embracing this new system."


E-mail: jdana@desnews.com