Freedom in the World
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Civil conflict, drought, sanctions imposed by the United Nations, and the ruling Taliban’s harsh social code continued to cause severe hardship for ordinary Afghans in 2000. The Taliban overran a string of opposition-held towns in northeastern Afghanistan in August and September, and by year’s end controlled roughly 95 percent of the country. As with a 1999 Taliban offensive that captured part of the Shomali plains north of Kabul, the latest fighting caused tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes.
Following a nineteenth-century Anglo-Russian contest for influence in Afghanistan, Britain recognized the country as an independent monarchy in 1921. King Zahir Shah ruled from 1933 until being deposed in a 1973 coup. Afghanistan has been in continuous civil conflict since 1978, when a Communist coup set out to transform this highly traditional society. The Soviet Union invaded in December 1979 and installed a pro-Moscow Communist faction. More than 100,000 Soviet troops faced fierce resistance from United States-backed mujahideen (guerrilla fighters) before finally withdrawing in 1989.
The ethnic-based mujahideen overthrew the Communist government in 1992, and then battled for control of Kabul, killing more than 25,000 civilians in the capital by 1995. The main forces were the Pashtun-based Hizb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) and the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic Association). The fighting has intensified cleavages between the rural-based Pashtuns, who form a near majority and have ruled for most of the past 250 years, and the large Tajik minority.
Initially organized around theology students, the ethnic-Pashtun Taliban militia ousted in 1996 a nominal government in Kabul headed by the Jamiat’s Burhanuddin Rabbani. Defeating or buying off mujahideen commanders, the Taliban soon controlled most of the country except for parts of northern and central Afghanistan, which remained in the hands of a self-styled Northern Alliance of ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Shiite forces. The Taliban captured the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and several northern provinces from the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostam in August 1998, and in September 1998 overtook central Bamian province, the Hazara Shiite stronghold.
The onset of winter in November 2000 led to a lull in the latest fighting. However, an estimated 60,000 people in northern Afghanistan remained internally displaced. Winter also brought increased hardship to the 4 million people in south and central Afghanistan whom the World Food Program said were severely affected by the country’s worst drought in decades.
There are no democratic processes or institutions at any level in Afghanistan. The Taliban rule by decree through an inner circle of Kandahar-based clerics, led by former mujahideen fighter Mullah Mohammed Omar. Appointed local shura (councils) also rule by decree. Authorities enforce strictly these decrees, which regulate nearly all aspects of social affairs. Several civilian-based opposition parties function clandestinely but face harassment. Amnesty International reported in March 1999 that the Taliban had detained and severely tortured up to 200 Afghan political figures in the past year on account of their peaceful political activity.
The Taliban rely on the UN and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to provide basic services, food-for-work programs, mine clearance, and refugee repatriation. Only three foreign governments recognize the Taliban state, even though it controls 95 percent of the country. The last major territory outside Taliban control is the northern Panjshir Valley, the stronghold of the Tajik-based forces of Ahmad Shah Masood, a Rabbani loyalist and fabled anti-Soviet military commander. Regional states reportedly help arm the various factions. The UN imposed aviation and financial sanctions in November 1999 after the Taliban refused to extradite the Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, who allegedly plotted the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. In late December, the UN Security Council gave the Taliban one month to surrender bin Laden and close alleged terrorist training camps or face an arms embargo.
In recent years, armed factions in Afghanistan’s civil conflict have committed torture, killings, and other abuses against civilians, and have carried out several massacres of civilians and soldiers during military operations. Since coming to power, the Taliban have arbitrarily detained and tortured thousands of men from ethnic minority groups, some of whom were killed or disappeared. Rockets and mortar fire continued to cause some civilian deaths in 2000, although far fewer than in the mid-1990s. Taliban fighters reportedly often looted and burned homes in areas they conquered.
The judiciary consists of tribunals in which clerics with little legal training hand down rulings based on Pashtun customs and the Taliban’s interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law). Proceedings are brief, defendants lack the right to legal counsel, there are no due process safeguards, and there is no right of appeal. In a society where families of murder victims have the option of carrying out court-imposed death sentences or granting clemency, victims’ relatives have killed convicted murderers on several occasions. Authorities have also bulldozed alleged sodomizers under walls, stoned adulterers to death, and amputated the hands of thieves. Prison conditions are inhumane.
The Taliban’s social code and its interpretation of the Sharia have created severe hardship for women. Religious police from the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice regularly flogged, beat, and otherwise punished women in detention centers and public places for violating Taliban dress codes, which include wearing the burqa, a one-piece garment covering the entire body. However, the Financial Times reported in February that Taliban enforcers had become less visible in Kabul.
Authorities continued to enforce the rural Islamic custom of purdah even in urban areas. Purdah requires families to isolate women from men who are not relatives. The Taliban have also generally enforced the custom of mehrem, requiring women to be accompanied by a male relative when they leave their homes. However, the Financial Times reported in March that women in Kabul are increasingly traveling in groups of two or three without a male relative.
The Taliban also continued to ban most women from working. This has created severe hardship for many women, particularly some 28,000 war widows in Kabul. The Taliban permitted female doctors and nurses to return to work in early 2000 following reports that numerous women had died after being unable to obtain medical assistance in the country’s gender-segregated hospitals. However, in early July, the Taliban prohibited women in Kabul from working for international aid groups outside of the health sector.
The Taliban continued to formally ban girls from going to school, although officials did allow some privately funded, underground “home schools” for girls to function despite their being banned in 1998. In addition, authorities reportedly ran a few primary schools for girls in Kabul. Only about one-quarter of boys attend school, largely because 80 percent of teachers are women and they can no longer work. The Financial Times reported in February that relief workers estimate that impoverished children make up at least half of the country’s population, and that there are an estimated 40,000 street children in Kabul out of a population of one million.
The Taliban sharply restrict freedom of expression and of association, and run a tightly-controlled broadcast outlet, Radio Voice of Sharia. The Taliban banned in 1998 televisions, videocassette recorders, videos, and satellite dishes, and destroyed stock found in shops. By some accounts authorities in Kabul have relaxed slightly enforcement of the ban. There are few, if any, civic groups and no known trade unions.
The Taliban continued to restrict religious freedom by forcing Afghans to adopt their ultraconservative Islamic practices. Roughly 85 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. The Taliban and other factions have committed widespread abuses against the Hazara Shiite minority. Outside areas of Taliban control, the rule of law is similarly nonexistent. Local authorities and strongmen administer justice arbitrarily according to the Sharia and traditional customs. Rival groups carry out torture and extrajudicial killings against opponents and suspected sympathizers. Northern-based opposition groups publish propaganda newspapers, operate radio stations, and run the only television station in Afghanistan out of Faizabad. The opposition also operates schools for both boys and girls.
The UN estimates that Afghanistan is the most heavily mined country in the world despite more than a decade of internationally assisted mine clearance. Fighting has left tens of thousands of Afghans internally displaced, and there are some 2.6 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Despite some efforts by the Taliban to curb production, Afghanistan continued to be the world’s largest producer of opium, the raw material for heroin. The UN-imposed sanctions worsened economic conditions in a country already ravaged by two decades of war.