Armed only with law textbooks, six Stanford law students and faculty advisor and senior research scholar Erik Jensen landed in Kabul, Afghanistan on Feb. 6 on a mission that would last six days.
The group made up Stanford's Afghanistan Legal Education Project (ALEP), a student-led law school project funded by the U.S. State Department that creates textbooks on Afghanistan's legal system specifically for the instruction of Afghani students.
Stanford students in the Afghanistan Legal Education Project (ALEP) meet with Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdul Salam Azimi during their six-day visit to Kabul. (Courtesy of Daniel Lewis)
Working with the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), the project is creating a new generation of lawyers to shape Afghanistan's future.
Since it was founded in 2007 by Stanford law alums Alexander Benard J.D. '08 and Eli Sugarman J.D. '09, the project has published four textbooks. These include an introductory text to the laws of Afghanistan and textbooks on commercial, criminal and international law. Students are currently writing a textbook on constitutional law.
"The whole project is indigenously oriented," Jensen said. "The textbooks are written in response to needs and demands of Afghan students, and we try to contextualize our work as much as we can to the politics, economics and social order in Afghanistan."
The purpose of the recent trip to Kabul was to explore the future and progress of the project. Students attended classes that are currently taught using ALEP textbooks, got feedback from Afghani students and professors and interacted with administrators at the AUAF to see where the project is headed.
"Sitting in on the classes and meeting with the students was for us a priority, because that's the best way we can get feedback on our books and make the project better," said Daniel Lewis LAW '12 and ALEP co-executive director.
After meeting with the president of AUAF, the group agreed that the ultimate goal for the project is to build a complete law school curriculum.
"The time frame is uncertain, but we're expanding really quickly," Lewis said.
In addition to rolling out the new textbook, ALEP plans to introduce new classes in the fall on Islamic law and the informal justice system in Afghanistan, taught by a collaborating Afghan professor and an affiliated postdoctoral fellow. Workshops on practical skills such as negotiation and writing are also on the horizon, as well as translations of the books into Dari and Pashto.
The group met other notable Afghan and American officials, including the dean at the Kabul University School of Law, university professors from the most populated provinces and Ambassador Hans Klemm, coordinating director of rule of law and law enforcement at the Embassy of the United States in Kabul.
"All the high officials we met with were extraordinarily supportive of the project," Jensen said.
"We'd gone over there expecting it wouldn't really be easy getting our books out there [past AUAF], or that there would be some hostility," Lewis said. "But that really wasn't the case. The feedback was that they were excited to have another resource that was new and updated."
Other universities are not the only other audiences attracted to the project's textbooks, which are available publicly, and for free, online.
"Over the past year or so, people have been downloading them [the books] and using them, some of which we know about and some of which we don't," said Rose Ehler LAW ‘12, another ALEP co-executive director.
The U.S. military has also used the textbooks to familiarize officers with Afghani law. According to Jensen, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal was "very familiar" with the textbooks.
The Afghan Ministry of Justice, leading judges and legal academics have also expressed interest in the project, according to Lewis.
"It was fascinating to be [in Kabul] as Stanford law students talking to these really important people in Afghanistan...in a knowledgeable way," Lewis said.
But strengthening the AUAF law school and spreading legal education are only the beginning of ALEP's goals.
"The development of the rule of law is historical process. It takes time; there are fits and starts," Jenson said.
"The problem is when you are at Afghanistan's level of development, it will go through years and years of fits and starts...and as society goes through these episodes, it will need a new cadre of leaders to lead to positive episodes," he added.
ALEP seeks to contribute to the formation of these future leaders, not only in the legal profession but also in the country as a whole. By using analytical methods to teach students critical thinking, they hope to bridge the gap between American style legal education and the Afghan reality.
"They [the Afghan students] will see opportunities that we can't see from Stanford, but they can see on the ground in Afghanistan," Jensen said, describing the project as one that is about imagining alternatives so as to prevent oppression.
The law students' person-to-person contact with the Afghani students made it clear that this project extends far beyond what can be seen on paper.
"The passion that we all saw in the students in Afghanistan just increased our passion for the project at Stanford...the heart and soul of the Stanford group is derived from the heart and soul of the Afghan students."
"Everybody on the trip came away saying, ‘Wow, we're actually doing something that's useful here,'" Lewis said.
The trip left the group optimistic about the project's future.
"Student demand is high; we've been successful at retaining some of the best faculty, and we hope that that the [AUAF] law school becomes a center of educational excellence," Jensen said.
Despite the fact that ALEP is no longer the "sole source" of Afghan law textbooks, Jensen is confident about the books' prospects.
"I look forward to the marketplace of competition...I think our books will show themselves to be the best."