Air Force Capt. Chris Sanders (’08) is among those giving Afghans the opportunity to succeed

Photo of Capt. Chris Sanders ('08) in uniform with children

Capt. Chris Sanders ('08)

Much has been written and reported about the war in Afghanistan. We’ve read and heard about the people. We recognize some of the cities — Kandahar, Kabul, Mazari Sharif. We think we know something about the country, a third-world land of desert and rocky landscapes known for its austerity.

It’s a country with a weak central government ruled in large part by warlords and tribal loyalties.

We think we know what it’s like.

In that, we are wrong.

“It’s impossible to understand this culture unless you lived it,” Air Force Capt. Chris Sanders said from Afghanistan.

Sanders (‘08) is part of the Rule of Law Field Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Rule of Law Field Support Mission-Afghanistan. All operations of NROLFSM-A are undertaken with an Afghan lead and pursuant to policy guidance from the U.S. ambassador, according to the U.S. military.

Afghanistan is country that, for centuries, has been torn by war.

Sanders recalls a day when, while on a foot patrol, he found himself standing in the ruins of a mud fort from a 19th century war; he could see a rusted Soviet tank from a war that happened in the 20th century. Accompanying him was group of 21st century soldiers. 

A military lawyer based at Minot AFB in North Dakota, Sanders has been deployed in Afghanistan since May, serving there with the 3/4 Calvary Squadron of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division. He’s scheduled to return to the U.S. on Nov. 14.

“Coming out of law school, the military seemed like a great fit for me,” he said. “I loved the idea of having the opportunity to serve my country while being a part of a diverse legal practice with opportunities to live and travel all over the world.”

Sanders is more than 7,000 miles from Winston-Salem, though Wake Forest is rarely far from his thoughts.

“I grew up with strong ties to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and have always loved the area of western North Carolina,” said Sanders of Laurel, Miss. “I looked at law schools in that general region of the country. When I visited Wake Forest I really liked the law school and the university as a whole as well as the city of Winston-Salem.”

It’s where he fell in love with the law; with litigation in particular.

“I’ve had some awesome professors at Wake Forest that definitely had an impact on my legal career after law school,” he says, mentioning Charley Rose, George Walker and Robert Chesney.  “Since graduating from Wake law in ’08, I have stayed in touch with Professor Rose via email, had lunch with Professor Walker at the Newport Naval Station’s Officer’s Club in Newport, R.I., and visited with Professor Chesney at (University of Texas) Law in Austin.

“A legal education is a lifelong endeavor, and Wake Forest was a great launching pad for mine. The competitive but supportive atmosphere, the small classrooms, the great relationships

with other students and professors … all that prepared me very well for what I’m doing now.”

As part of his mission in Afghanistan, Sanders supports and assists local judicial officials who are working to strengthen and legitimize the country’s formal system of justice. The events and cases vary, but rarely is it a simple task.

The tribal culture in rural eastern Afghanistan encompasses a loose set of rules and the

imposition of swift — oftentimes brutal — justice, which was meted out by the Taliban in a way that garnered worldwide notoriety and scorn.

If someone stole a goat, for example, the Taliban would bring its own form of justice, which, for many citizens, provided a modicum of stability, Sanders said.

“It’s a different mindset and world view.”

Sanders, and Judge Advocate officers like him, are working to alter that perspective. The overarching mission of the Rule of Law Field Forces-Afghanistan is to support and enable the establishment of a legitimate judicial system, he says. Oftentimes, disputes and crimes are brought before a jirga, an assembly composed of tribal elders.

“That’s what the villagers know,” said Sanders, who earned his bachelor’s degree in political science at Mississippi College.

“One of challenges is increasing awareness about how a formal system can solve their problems,” he said from Forward Operating Base Shinwar, where he works in three Key Terrain Districts in eastern Nangarhar province.

 “One of the goals is for the government to resolve disputes in a way that earns the citizens trust and respect so that they do not turn to the Taliban to solve their problems. There is a great Afghan saying, ‘A country without laws is like a jungle,’ and the rule of law is one of the most fundamental cornerstones of any society.

“The ultimate goal is to have district hold public hearings, so local citizens can see justice being done effectively and in a public manner.”

In Afghanistan, Sanders also has served at Forward Operating Base Finley-Shields, where he worked at the provincial level in the capital of Nangarhar Province, Jalalabad, in the eastern

part of the country. Sanders has spent time at Camp Phoenix in Kabul and Kandarhar; he visited the infamous Sarposa prison a couple of weeks after about 400 Taliban prisoners escaped through a tunnel system dug into the prison.

U.S. involvement notwithstanding, Afghanistan remains a violent, foreboding place. Areas such as Kunar province near the northern border are, said Sanders, “crawling with insurgents.” He and his unit see IEDs “on a regular basis.” He defined the fighting as “pretty active.”

As of Tuesday, Oct. 25, at least 1,700 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S.-led invasion, according to an Associated Press count. Since the start of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, 14,611 U.S. service members have been wounded in hostile action, according to the Department of Defense and reported by the AP.

It hasn’t been in vain, Sanders said. Afghanistan, because of the U.S., is no longer a bastion for terrorists and terrorist planning.

“I think we’re definitely succeeding in that we’re giving Afghans the opportunity to succeed. At end of day, that’s all we can do. We’re trying to leave behind a sufficiently functioning government.”