An attorney seeks justice in a lawless land

BAGRAM, AFGHANISTAN — BAGRAM, Afghanistan - Two farmers' wheat crops burn. They say someone else caused the fire and now want compensation for their loss.

It should be an open-and-shut case for Philadelphia insurance defense lawyer John Barrett, who has spent his career investigating personal and property injury cases. Go to the scene, interview witnesses, research the deed to the property, make a decision based on case law and jury awards.


That was how Barrett practiced law in the United States, where there is a more than 250-year-old legal system. But in Afghanistan, Barrett, a staff judge advocate for base operations at Bagram Air Base, is trying to practice law for the U.S. military in a country where the legal system is in tatters and cultural traditions are vastly different from those in the West.

"I don't even know if there is a court system left," said Barrett, a captain in the Pennsylvania National Guard's 213th Area Support Group, based in Allentown, Pa. "When you have a question that involves interpretation of Afghan law, I mean, does it even exist?"


Part of Barrett's job is to handle claims that Afghans make against the U.S. government for damage to people and property unrelated to combat. Military justice lawyers, known as judge advocates, serve in every branch of the armed services, and have since the Constitution's drafting, when it was recognized that a different set of laws should govern armed services.

At Bagram Air Base, there are at least eight judge advocates. Not only do they advise commanders and soldiers on legal issues, but, like Barrett, they also preside in soldiers' disciplinary proceedings and courts-martial, and review military contracts.

Barrett is trying to investigate the Afghan farmers' claim that the fire was caused by a flare shot when a U.S. plane flew overhead, but he cannot interview the witnesses. That's because they are women, and in this highly patriarchal society, men are not allowed to talk to women who are not family members.

"I need an eyewitness. I need causation; it's a critical element," Barrett said. "I'm not going to pay just because someone says there's a fire."

Barrett has a calm, professional manner, but he becomes more animated when discussing the challenges he is facing.

As Afghanistan struggles to redefine itself and rewrite the constitution that will provide the basis for its legal system, lawyers, both civilian and military, are trying to make their way through the murky corridors of a nebulous justice system.

As in many other war-torn nations, there is confusion as to which laws are in place. Many don't exist - casualties of more than 23 years of upheaval, including 10 years of war with the Soviets; civil war; and Taliban rule that enforced the Shariah, strict Islamic law, and a brand of justice that included public executions in soccer stadiums.

Barrett is trying to work around the obstacles and will soon send some of the female soldiers who work in his office, accompanied by a female interpreter, to conduct interviews with the witnesses.


The farmers live in the village of Jan Qadam, not far from the barbed-wire perimeter of Bagram Air Base. And like so much of Afghanistan, its people make their homes out of the one natural product that is free and plentiful in this country, turning the pale, parched clay dirt into medieval mud fortresses.

Barrett and his team had to park their van and walk up a narrow dirt path to reach the village. Children emerged from nowhere and cavorted among the visitors, while the women peeked out from behind windows, only to retreat inside.

Dressed in his desert camouflage uniform, the 38-year-old Barrett was greeted by the village elder and one of the farmers. Barrett is a stocky man with a buzz cut; his face is in a constant flush in the intense heat.

The team was taken to what remained of the wheat pile on a large square, not far from the bricks made out of a mixture of mud and the chaff and baked in outdoor kilns.

There are challenges for an attorney accustomed to the efficiencies of American life and its judicial system.

The reams of documentation so essential to legal work in the United States are not easily found in Afghanistan. Items such as deeds and titles of conveyance are hard to come by, many of them destroyed over the past two decades or never kept.


"That's what we live and breathe by, the paper trail, especially in defense," said Barrett, who wonders how he will pay a claim because there are no receipts.

Barrett and his staff have learned that conducting legal research online is often an exercise in futility, with exceedingly slow Internet connectivity, erratic telephone service and occasional electricity outages.

In another case, the wheels of justice turned smoothly when Barrett decided that 11 Afghan property owners should be paid the equivalent of $130 each for fruit trees destroyed by the coalition's land-mine clearing equipment.

He arrived at the figure based on the number of trees destroyed, how much they would have produced and what it would cost to replace them.

So far Barrett has worked on six claims, but that number may grow "since it's become known we pay cash." Local Afghan militia commanders have been funneling claims from villagers to the base.

Under the U.S. Foreign Claims Act, individuals in other countries can make claims against the U.S. government in noncombat situations.


Money is appropriated to the Department of Defense for legal claims, and Bagram Air Base has paid about $53,000 in claims since November.

Barrett said the challenge is to be fair to everyone "and not let the U.S. government and taxpayers' money get frittered away on [bogus] claims."

The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Morning Call staff writer Jeff Miller contributed to this article.