WASHINGTON—Col. Lindsey Graham, wearing Air Force desert fatigues and carrying a loaded 9mm pistol, was growing frustrated as he stood before a roomful of Afghan military lawyers on a steamy August day in Kabul.
Graham was trying to use his Southern wit to lighten the complex principles and practices of U.S. military law he was teaching. The Republican's self-deprecating, cornball jokes play well on the Senate floor or back home in South Carolina, but in the Afghan capital, delivered through an interpreter, they were falling flat.
Each time the colonel cracked a joke, the few other Americans in the room broke out laughing while the Afghans sat stone-faced. In mock exasperation, Graham turned to the translator and said:
"You're not very funny!"
During his mid-August mission to train Afghan judges, lawyers and prosecutors in the struggling democracy's armed forces, Graham was the first sitting member of Congress in decades to perform military duty in a war zone.
"When you've been working in the military most of your life like I have, you relish the opportunity to put your skills to use in a time that it matters the most," Graham said Thursday in a phone interview from Montenegro in the Balkans.
An Air Force Reserve colonel, Graham served more than six years' active duty as a military lawyer, most of it in Europe, before joining Congress in 1995. Since then, he's sat as a judge on the Air Force Court of Appeals and pulled other Reserve duty. His eight-day trip to Afghanistan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates was his first foreign assignment as a reservist.
The Afghanistan assignment appealed to Graham, 51, because he felt it would aid the country's rough transition to democracy.
"For us to win the war on terror, it's going to take more than bullets," Graham said. "Our hope is that if we can transform the military to accept the rule of law, it will spread to the civilian population in Afghanistan."
Almost five years after U.S. forces toppled the Taliban regime, drug trafficking is soaring, the Taliban have retaken parts of the country and Afghanistan still endures widespread violence. There was a car-bombing in Kabul shortly before Graham's arrival, and NATO forces were fighting Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan during Graham's visit.
Training at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Graham, an avid hunter, qualified as an expert marksman before his departure. He carried a pistol and traveled in an unmarked convoy with three other visiting U.S. officers.
Graham said he never felt directly threatened in Afghanistan, but felt the general danger.
"I realized I was in a war zone—that was never lost on me," Graham said. "I was probably at more personal risk because I went as a senator. I'm just a more visible target."
For security and personal reasons, Graham's trip wasn't publicized in advance, and his office issued no news releases afterward. Word of the unusual journey filtered out after the American Forces Press Service ran an article for military publications.
"I wasn't going to say a word about it because I know that my contribution is minimal," Graham said. "Quite honestly, I know the sacrifices that people are making are so much more than mine. It was something that was personal to me."
The Afghan parliament recently approved the post-Taliban government's first military code of justice. Graham spent part of his time describing its similarities with, and differences from, the U.S. military legal system.
Graham traveled with Maj. Gen. Jack Rives, who as Air Force judge advocate general is his boss in the Air Force Reserve.
Rives noted that while he had his own room and a private bathroom during the trip, Graham bunked with another colonel; they shared a hallway bathroom.
"He traveled as a colonel in the Reserves, and he was treated as a colonel in the Reserves," Rives said. "A lot of folks we met, of course, were aware of his status in civilian life, but not all of them were. Some of them were surprised when they found out."
A declining number of senators or representatives have any military experience—only about a quarter of the 535 members, at last count.
Graham is the only senator in the National Guard or Reserves. There are three representatives: Reps. Stephen Buyer, an Indiana Republican, and John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, are in the Army Reserve; Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, is in the Navy Reserve. Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, retired from the Army National Guard three years ago.
Buyer attends weekly drills with Graham, the other congressional Reservists and senior executive agency officials who retain their military commissions. Their unit is a special one for "Individual Mobilization Augmentees," Pentagon-speak for officers who because of their government positions aren't deployable for active duty.
"What is extraordinary about Lindsey doing this overseas is that he serves at no pay and he does not seek reimbursement for his expenses," Buyer said. "Lindsey is a talented lawyer, he is a good Air Force officer, and he's a good person. For him to go over and participate in teaching is crucial because, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, establishment of the rule of law is so important."
Graham's experience as a military lawyer has helped put him in the middle of the most controversial policy debates and power struggles between Congress and the executive branch since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Graham has helped to try to negotiate compromises over the Bush administration's bid to try accused terrorists in closed military tribunals, employ rough interrogation techniques that border on torture and hold detainees without access to lawyers.
But during his two-day teaching stint in Kabul, it wasn't Graham's analysis of complex military and legal issues that drew the biggest response from the Afghan military lawyers.
The moment that most impressed them was when Graham said that he was following in the footsteps of earlier senators who also served in the military. As Graham paid homage to Strom Thurmond, he mentioned that the late senator from South Carolina had fathered two children after turning 70.
The Afghans broke out in applause, some rising to their feet.
"He almost got a standing ovation," said Rives, the Air Force judge advocate general. "The Afghans did appreciate that."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map