York County judge seeing real, albeit slow, progress in Afghanistan

Liz Evans Scolforo
  • York County Judge Craig Trebilcock, a U.S. Army colonel, was sent to Afghanistan in November.
  • His mission is to help Afghan officials put an end to government corruption and human-rights abuses.
  • Trebilcock will return to York County in November and will resume presiding over veterans treatment court.

York County Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock said the battle to end corruption and human-rights abuses in Afghanistan is making incremental, but very real, progress, thanks to Afghan officials who are risking their lives to make their country safer and less corrupt.

And the judge is right in the thick of it.

York County Judge Craig Trebilcock, also a U.S. Army colonel, has been deployed in Afghanistan since November.
(Photo courtesy of Craig Trebilcock)

The 56-year-old U.S. Army colonel was sent to the war-torn country in November on a yearlong mission as a NATO adviser helping to restructure Afghanistan's law-enforcement system so corruption is no longer protected and human-rights violations aren't ignored.

Speaking from an undisclosed location somewhere in the Pacific while on leave, Trebilcock talked about the Major Crimes Task Force in Kabul, which he helps advise.

"They get death threats every day," he said. "They have to fight through a labyrinth of tribal and ethnic and political relationships that seek to prevent them from doing their job."

Cash, corruption: The task force was featured in a June 4 Washington Post article, which noted that members seem to be "plucked from central casting" and committed to rooting out government corruption in Afghanistan. Trebilcock was quoted in the article as saying that restructuring the country's law-enforcement system will allow prosecutors, judges and investigators to work together on major cases.

"There's been a lot of money poured into Afghanistan by the international community, and originally it was done without a lot of controls being put in place. Any time you have that situation ... it can lead to corruption," Trebilcock told The York Dispatch last week. "Under (former Afghan president Hamid) Karzai's administration, corruption was rampant, and powerful people were protected from being prosecuted."

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Members of the Major Crimes Task Force basically had their hands tied when Karzai was in charge.

"The unit I work with had its teeth removed," Trebilcock said. "It wasn't given adequate funding, and it was politically prevented from going after anyone who held any level of rank or position."

But when current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took office, he brought with him a new resolve to clean up his government, according to the judge.

U.S. Army Col. Craig Trebilcock,right, also a York County judge, walks through an Afghanistan neighborhood with Afghan Brig. Gen. Abdul Ghayor Andarabi (in tan jacket), who the judge said is putting his life in danger to improve conditions in the war-torn country.
(Photo courtesy of Craig Trebilcock)

Tools and funding: Ghani recognizes that Afghanistan cannot move forward as a country if corruption continues, "so he has provided the Major Crimes Task Force with the tools and funding they need to go after senior-level corruption," Trebilcock said.

The task force is run by Afghan Brig. Gen. Abdul Ghayor Andarabi, with whom Trebilcock works closely.

"From his position he could make hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes by not pursuing cases, which is the old way of doing business," the judge said. "But he has decided he wants to give his country a future, so he's putting his life on the line to try to clean up his country."

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In addition to advising the Major Crimes Task Force, Trebilcock also is helping Afghan officials put in place a system to prevent corruption from taking hold in the first place, he said.

"The Afghan people are great. There's a generational difference you can notice ... the people who have grown up and matured in the post-Taliban era, like the 1980s and after, have a different attitude and really want to make sacrifices to make their country better," he said. "They are ambitious, seeking education, seeking improvement for themselves and really appreciating the sacrifices the United States has made for their country. Afghanistan has a lot of potential."

On Monday TOLO News, which bills itself as Afghanistan's first 24-hour news network, reported that nearly 110 employees of the Kabul municipality were barred from leaving the country pending corruption charges. Trebilcock is based in Kabul.

Human rights: The second prong of the judge's mission is to work with the U.S. military, the Afghan military and the Afghan police force on  responding to and combating human-rights abuses and to make sure such abuses aren't swept under the rug.

"The Afghan Army does a good job of holding their own responsible when excessive force is used," Trebilcock said. "The Afghan police need more work. ... Their police aren't like our police."

U.S. Army Col. Craig T. Trebilcock (right) and Afghan Brig. Gen. Abdul Ghayor Andarabi (in tan jacket) talk with an Afghan citizen.
(Photo courtesy of Craig Trebilcock)

Rather, police in that country are more of a paramilitary force that man checkpoints and help fight the Taliban, he said.

"It's a war zone, so bad things happen," the judge said. "When people get injured who shouldn't be — like civilians — international law and military law require that an investigation be done and that those who exceeded their authority be punished."

Killing children: The worst abuses in Afghanistan are being committed by terrorists, who don't answer to NATO.

"There's a mixture of enemies we're dealing with in Afghanistan," Trebilcock said. "There's the Taliban, there's al-Qaida and there's a fledgling ISIL (Islamic State) presence. None of them follow international law or international rules of warfare, and they are terrorists. So they use weapons of terror, such as bombings in urban areas, that are indiscriminate against civilians."

For example, terrorists will load a truck with 500 pounds of explosives, targeting the U.S. military and Afghan military, "but they kill a lot of women and children instead," according to the judge.

"It happens if not every week, then every month," he said.

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Asked whether he has in any way gotten used to seeing such carnage, the judge said he's not sure anyone can ever get used to it.

"You focus on your mission," Trebilcock said. "It helps you stay disciplined and remember why you're there — to make the Afghan government stronger ... and bring some peace and stability to their people."

Human dignity: In the midst of bombings and fighting and government upheavals, Afghan citizens simply try to live their lives, he said, which makes for a bizarre mixture of regular life and war-zone craziness.

"The one thing I've learned in various wars and peacekeeping operations I've been involved in is, it doesn't matter where you are. People are people, and they all want the same things," Trebilcock said.

People want education for their children, peace in their communities, access to medicine and medical care, "and they want to have a certain level of human dignity," the judge said.

He said U.S. citizens who are weary of the conflict in Afghanistan need to consider what could happen if forces simply leave now.

"If we don't finish the job, then after 15 years, what have we accomplished?" Trebilcock asked. "We don't always have strategic patience as Americans. We like change to happen quickly, and when the world doesn't cooperate with that, we get frustrated."

York County Judge Craig Trebilcock, also a U.S. Army colonel, tours an area of Afghanistan.
(Photo courtesy of Craig Trebilcock)

But Afghanistan is changing, he said — "it's just changing very slowly. ... We're making a lot of progress on the mission."

Tight security: Trebilcock said being in Afghanistan is a much different experience than being in Iraq, because Kabul is "a much more urban experience," while his time in Iraq was mostly in the desert.

"You're pretty much hemmed up ... moving from one secure compound to another secure compound because of the insurgent threat," he said, and that means he frequently travels in helicopters. "Every day I'm going out on a mission; I'm wearing a flak jacket. ... When you are doing that, you're driving past children in their school uniforms, carrying their book bags."

Asked if it's still thrilling to ride in a Black Hawk helicopter, the judge admitted it's become just another part of his job and not much different from any other task or errand.

Trebilcock said he'll return home in "November-ish."

"I miss everybody in the courthouse. I miss being on the bench," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting back, and looking forward to getting back to (overseeing) veterans court, as well."

Veterans court is one of York County's treatment courts, which are designed to get to the root of a problem and solve it, rather than simply punish offenders. There also are DUI, drug and mental-health treatment courts.

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Trebilcock has served in the Army and Army Reserve for about 28 years, including in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

His military service also includes a 1997 peacekeeping mission in the Balkans, a three-year tour of duty in West Germany that began in 1988 and a number of short tours to Africa, where he gave rule-of-law training to U.S. allies.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.