Police officers eradicate a patch of illegally grown opium poppies in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan in July 2009. Illegal drug production is just one of the many challenges facing the country. ((Julie Jacobson/Associated Press))

In Afghanistan, anger over the August presidential election continues to bubble, adding to other persistent problems such as the country's ever-present warlords and a multi-billion-dollar opium industry.

It's not exactly the ideal environment in which to undertake wide-sweeping judicial reforms.

Yet that is what Robert O'Brien is trying to do. He is the co-chair of the U.S. State Department's Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan.

His job consists primarily of working with Afghan prosecutors, judges and defence lawyers to give them the skills to improve the country's judicial system.

He spoke to The Current 's Anna Maria Tremonti recently about his work.

Q: How would you describe the state of the Afghan judiciary in the first years after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002?

As you and your listeners know, Afghans have been at war for roughly 30 years now, so it's taken its toll on institutions and civil society, with a real emphasis on the judicial sector, which was suffering. It got worse when the Taliban took over.

One example that I like to give is there are some very courageous and qualified women judges and prosecutors in Afghanistan. As soon as the Taliban took over, they were all summarily fired and dismissed.

Q: They also got rid of things like the law books and the law records, right?

Many were burned. But one of the [early] successes — and this is not something we did in the Public-Private Partnership but it was a coalition effort that involved the U.S., Italy, Canada and other countries — was literally going through and reconstituting a law library for Afghanistan.

Codes were searched out from judges who had taken them home with them to save them from the Taliban. Law libraries around the world that had access to Afghan legal materials were searched, and those materials were put together.

And so, early after the liberation of Afghanistan, we were able to present the Supreme Court of Afghanistan with a set of their own laws.

Q: How dangerous is it for judges and prosecutors in Afghanistan right now?

It's an extremely dangerous environment. We met several years ago in Kabul with Judge Alim Hanif, who was the head of the counter-narcotics tribunal in Kabul, which is one of the real success stories in the justice sector. Unfortunately, Judge Hanif was assassinated on his way to work in September 2008.

I had one Afghan judge tell us that they'll be able to measure the progress of the counter-narcotics tribunal by the body count. I said, "Well, what body count is that?" And he said, "The body count of judges. We'll know as they start assassinating judges that we're getting closer to the kingpins."

It's an awful thing to hear, but it also shows the courage and dedication of these brave Afghan men and women that have taken up the call to serve as judges and prosecutors.

There's still a long way to go, but we're seeing some progress.

Q: But in July, President Hamid Karzai pardoned five men convicted of drug trafficking, including the relative of a man who was heading up his own re-election campaign. What kind of message does that send to drug lords in Afghanistan?

I'm sure the prosecutors and judges who had to put on their cases and obtain those hard-fought convictions under very trying circumstances were probably disappointed, but, you know, Afghanistan's a sovereign country, and they have a president who has the right under the constitution to take those steps.

President Karzai must have felt that he had reason to do so, but I'm sure it was disappointing to the folks involved in the prosecution.

Q: We know about poppy production there and how that feeds so much of the drug industry in other parts of the world. Can you bring judicial reform to a country that is so steeped in that kind of corruption?

It's a tough situation, but the Afghans themselves are law-abiding folks by and large. They want a country that's based on the rule of law. And they understand that the drug trade doesn't just hurt other countries. It's hurting Afghanistan.

We've seen a spike in addiction in Afghanistan. There's a serious drug addiction problem just over the border in Iran that we're seeing and also in Pakistan.

The drug trade has expanded because the Afghan drug lords have brought the drug processing on shore. Before they just exported the raw materials, and a drug distributor would refine the heroin or the opium. That's now being done in Afghanistan.

The poppy trade not only hurts us in the West, but it's hurting the people in Afghanistan and their neighbours. It's a real scourge, and stopping it is not going to be easy.

We have to make the criminals pay for their crime. And that's through prosecution, conviction and putting these folks in jails, from which they can't escape, and we can't have these easy jailbreaks. But also jails that treat the convicted traffickers with basic human rights that we'd expect in a modern prison system.

Q: But how do you do all that with judicial reform when large swaths of the country are in the hands of jihadists and large swaths of the country are involved in heavy combat?

In Helmand province and some of the places where Canadian forces and American marines and American soldiers are in the thick of it, it's difficult to bring justice to those areas. And so we're doing the best we can in the areas that are under government control.

We're bringing prosecutors, judges and defence lawyers from the provinces to Kabul or to the United States for training and then sending them back out to their regions. We had hoped to do more on the ground in these provinces and in some of the more remote regions, but the security situation, of course, is challenging.

Q: Last March, the Karzai government brought in judicial reforms that in essence codified rape in marriage. Why do you think that happened?

We certainly can't dictate to Afghanistan and to its elected representatives as to what laws it can and can't pass, but we can certainly express our deep concern over laws such as the... I think it was the Shia personal law.

Q: The personal status law. That was in July that they passed that. But what does that all do to efforts to reform the judiciary?

I think it's got to have a demoralizing impact, especially on the women who are fighting for justice reform in Afghanistan and seeking to strengthen their country. You just can't have a successful or prosperous country if you repress half your population or slightly more than half your population.

But I think that one of the things that was interesting in this recent election is that a number of women, I think the greatest number in the past couple of elections, actually stood for offices throughout the country — local offices and federal offices.