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Afghan Foreign Minister Calls Judiciary 'Biggest Challenge'
Photo by Kevin Matthews

Afghan Foreign Minister Calls Judiciary 'Biggest Challenge'

Dr. 'Abdullah' Abdullah notes progress, urges diplomatic solution to dispute between neighboring Iran and the United States.

Kevin Matthews Email KevinMatthews

He responded to a loud cellphone ring tone by noting that the mobile telecommunications market in Afghanistan was robust. Asked how UCLA students could aid Afghanistan, he suggested, to applause, that they get plane tickets and join him there.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah became a minor phenomenon on worldwide television after U.S. and British planes began a sustained bombing campaign over his country. He remains grateful for the military intervention, which led to the 2001 ouster of Afghanistan's Taliban regime. At the time, he was known as the "foreign minister" of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan ground forces who would drive out the Taliban by year's end. Dr. Abdullah (an ophthalmologist) wore western suits and fielded questions in English, French, and Arabic, in addition to his native Dari and Pashto.

Amid his sudden fame outside of his country, the press seemed unable to decide what to call him, with editors at the Washington Post and New York Times disagreeing about his stated wishes. Many Afghans use only one name, but this man born "Abdullah" at the very least did not mind if outsiders preferred to see that and raise it to "Abdullah Abdullah."

By any multiple, the name did not remain long in newspapers as Afghanistan gradually faded from the front pages. Being ignored is an old problem for Afghanistan. At a March 16, 2006, talk at the UCLA School of Law, co-sponsored by the Muslim Law Students Association and the Politics and International Law Colloquium Series (pdf schedule) with support from the Burkle Center for International Relations, Abdullah noted that international interest in the country faded when the Soviet occupation of the 1980s ended. Major distractions such as the unraveling of the Soviet Union and the wars in the former Yugoslavia would keep attention focused elsewhere for years.

Abdullah said that, between the Taliban government's coming to power in 1996 and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the United States, he had taken "any opportunity" to tell people abroad, "Look, something is being cooked in Afghanistan," and that not only Afghans but "everybody" stood to get hurt.

One might suppose that Abdullah would be in a far better position now to make himself heard on international concerns, but that is not the way he tells it. Responding to an audience member's question about possible U.S. military action against Iran, he made clear that Afghan influence could by no means match its interest in the matter:

Any language which will lead to destabilization will affect our situation. There is little that we can do to prevent any development from taking place. Can we affect the position of the government of Iran today so that there is more understanding between them and the international community about their [nuclear] programs, or a solution based on that? There is little that we can do. We can only hope that things will not lead to confrontation and military engagement, and [that] diplomatic solutions will bring satisfactory results.

Meanwhile, not even the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, still fighting an insurgency led by former regime elements and taking casualties as recently as March 12, has kept media attention focused on Abdullah's country.

Next: Afghan 'Resource Curse'?

Of course, Abdullah did not address the packed law school auditorium in order to complain that the country was still being ignored. Indeed, he credited an international process for achievements made in Afghanistan between a 2001 conference in Bonn, Germany, and a similar conference in London early this year, both of which produced large pledges of aid and investment.

Rather, Abdullah came to UCLA to share something of the central government's struggle to bring a highly decentralized country under one rule of law. The Afghan judiciary, he said, faces not only new threats of violence but also legacies of lawlessness under Soviet occupation and of the Taliban's fundamentalist institutions. The lack of suitable institutions on which to base the development of a judicial system is "the biggest challenge in a post-conflict situation like that of Afghanistan," he said. "It is one thing to wish to have a functioning judiciary; it is quite a different piece of cake to establish one."

A lack of trained judges is a major part of the problem. Prior to 2001, education had been disrupted for two generations of Afghans during 23 years of turmoil, Abdullah said. Under the Taliban, girls received no schooling at all, and boys got extremely limited religious training.

"Where are these judges being trained?...What is the scope of their knowledge? Is it only [Islamic] Sharia law? Do they know anything about civil law?"

Abdullah said that six million Afghan children had returned to school, and that 35 percent of them were girls.

With urbane and sometimes wry delivery, Abdullah clearly won over the law school audience. He responded to a loud cellphone ring tone by noting that the mobile telecommunications market in Afghanistan was robust. Asked how UCLA students could aid Afghanistan, he suggested, to applause, that they get plane tickets and join him there.

At one point, Abdullah noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai would present his cabinet choices to parliament within a few days of the talk. "I hope it doesn't happen during my presence here in the United States," he said. By March 20, a few Asian news outlets were reporting that Karzai intended to reshuffle his cabinet and that, for the first time, the list might not include Abdullah.

Abdullah expressed hope that the apparent discovery of significant oil and gas resources in the country would allow Afghanistan to "stand on its own feet." Two days before his talk, a joint Afghan–U.S. Geological Survey team reported that two northern regions of the country could hold as much as 1.6 billion barrels of oil and 15.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

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