Afghanistan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Afghanistan received an upward trend arrow because of the installation of a broad-based interim government, an easing of repression, and reduced civil conflict.


Afghanistan's war-ravaged population had its first real prospects for peace in years in late 2001 after American-led military strikes and Afghan opposition forces routed the ultraconservative Taliban movement that had ruled the impoverished country for five years. It was not clear, however, whether the Taliban's overthrow would bring the stability needed to rebuild a country wracked by severe food shortages, three years of drought, and 22 years of civil conflict.

A broad-based, interim government that took office in December, led by Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai, enjoyed the backing of the West and the United Nations, and the nominal support of Afghanistan's post-Taliban provincial governors. However, it had little real authority outside Kabul. Throughout the rugged countryside, military commanders, tribal leaders, rogue warlords, and petty bandits held sway. This patchwork of local control plus the onset of the harsh Afghan winter complicated efforts by international aid agencies to help the roughly one-third of Afghanistan's population that depends on food aid for its survival. Thousands of Afghans returned to their homes once the American bombing campaign ended, but at year's end upwards of 1.1 million civilians remained displaced within the country. Many had left their homes long before the latest crisis began, in search of food or to flee fighting.

Karzai, meanwhile, faced the daunting tasks of setting up working government institutions almost from scratch and maintaining an uneasy power-sharing arrangement between representatives of ethnic Pashtuns, who are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. Those groups dominated the Northern Alliance coalition that for years fought a losing campaign against the Pashtun-based Taliban until the United States and its allies intervened.

The United States launched the campaign, which featured daily aerial bombings and the aid of American, British, and Australian troops, to capture or kill Saudi militant Osama bin Laden, destroy the Afghanistan operations of his Al Qaeda terrorist network, and punish the Taliban for harboring him. Washington accused bin Laden of masterminding the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Located at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan has for centuries been caught in the middle of great power and regional rivalries. After besting Russia in a nineteenth-century 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 on Christmas Day in 1979 and installed a pro-Moscow Communist faction. Until they finally withdrew in 1989, more than 100,000 Soviet troops faced fierce resistance from U.S.-backed mujahideen (guerrilla fighters).

The ethnic-based mujahideen factions overthrew the Communist government in 1992, and then battled each other for control of Kabul, killing more than 25,000 civilians in the capital by 1995. Until the mid-1990s, the main forces were the Pashtun-based Hizb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) and the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic Association). The rural-based Pashtuns form a near majority in Afghanistan and have ruled for most of the past 250 years.

Drawn largely from students in Islamic schools, the Taliban militia entered the fray in 1995 and, in 1996, seized control of Kabul from a nominal government headed by the Jamiat's Burhanuddin Rabbani. Defeating or buying off mujahideen commanders, the Taliban soon controlled most of the mountainous country, except for parts of northern and central Afghanistan, which remained in the hands of the Northern Alliance. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the Taliban's main supporters, while Iran, Russia, India, and Central Asian states backed the Northern Alliance.

By the time the American-led strikes began on October 7, 2001, the Taliban controlled roughly 95 percent of Afghanistan. After holding out for several weeks, the movement crumbled quickly throughout the country. The Taliban lost Kabul to Northern Alliance forces in November and then on December 7 surrendered the southern city of Kandahar, the movement's spiritual headquarters.

The UN-brokered deal that put Karzai in office sought to balance demands for power by victorious Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara military commanders with the reality that many Pashtuns would not trust a government headed by ethnic minorities. Karzai, 44, named 18 Northern Alliance officials to his 30-member cabinet. They included Northern Alliance military leader Mohammad Fahim as defense minister. Fahim had taken command of Northern Alliance troops in September after two men posing as Arab journalists had assassinated his predecessor, Ahmad Shah Masood, the storied anti-Soviet resistance leader. Karzai, moreover, is expected to be in office only until June 2002, when exiled monarch Zahir Shar, 87, will convene a loya jirga, a traditional council of tribal elders and other notables. That body will name a government that will rule for two years, pending elections.

As Karzai's government got down to work in Kabul, relief workers in the countryside struggled to meet the needs of thousands of displaced and refugee Afghans who were returning to their homes and the millions more who needed food aid. Relief workers blamed the severe food shortages on a three-year drought, the worst in decades, and the civil conflict.

Adding to the difficulty of providing relief, fighting continued in parts of Afghanistan at year's end, while warlords were setting up numerous checkpoints to extort money from travelers. The first lightly armed British troops of a foreign security force for the capital began patrolling Kabul in December. U.S. and anti-Taliban forces, however, were still confronting pockets of resistance from some Taliban soldiers and the mainly Arab Al-Qaeda fighters, and were mounting cave-to-cave searches for bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Meanwhile, Pashtun chieftains with few ties to Karzai's government were carving out their own fiefs in much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

At year's end, some 80,000 Afghan refugees had returned from Pakistan and Iran since late November, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The Geneva-based agency warned, however, that Afghanistan needs large amounts of humanitarian relief and reconstruction aid before any large-scale refugee returns would be possible. Even before the latest crisis began, Pakistan had hosted around 2 million Afghan refugees, and Iran another 1.5 million. Most had fled fighting, while many newer arrivals desperately sought food.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

As 2001 ended, Afghanistan had only a nominal government in Kabul and most Afghans enjoyed few basic rights. With the Taliban routed, residents of the capital and other cities were able to go about their daily lives with far less harassment. Basing its rule on a strict interpretation of the Sharia (Islamic law) and the harsh Pashtun social code of rural Afghanistan, the Taliban had placed tight restrictions on nearly all aspects of social and religious life. At year's end, however, it was not clear whether rural Afghans had gained much in the way of enhanced security or freedom to live and work without being molested. The local military commanders, tribal leaders, and rogue warlords who replaced the Taliban in the countryside enjoyed virtually unlimited power.

Throughout Afghanistan, new rulers from Karzai on down to local strongmen faced the question of whether to bring to justice, take revenge upon, or simply ignore perpetrators of past abuses. During the civil war, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international human rights groups recorded numerous cases where either the Taliban or an opposition group killed civilians or soldiers, often from particular ethnic groups, after wresting control of cities or towns. The London-based Amnesty International in December called for an inquiry into what it said was a "large-scale killing" of captured Taliban fighters and others at the Qala-i-Jhanghi fort outside Mazar-i-Sharif. In another recent incident, Taliban fighters reportedly massacred more than 100 Hazara Shiite civilians in January 2001 after recapturing Yakaolang district in central Bamiyan Province from the Shiite-based Hezb-e-Wahadat militia in December, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations.

During their rule, the Taliban also detained and tortured thousands of Tajiks, Hazaras, and members of other ethnic minorities, some of whom were killed or disappeared. The warring factions at times also deliberately or indiscriminately bombed or shelled homes, schools, and other civilian buildings.

Dealing with past abuses as well as protecting basic rights will be particularly tough in a country where courts are rudimentary and judges are easily pressured. Justice under the Taliban consisted of clerics with little legal training handing down rulings based on Pashtun customs and the Taliban's interpretation of the Sharia. Trials were brief and defendants had no legal counsel or rights of appeal. The situation was not much different in areas outside of Taliban control, although punishments were generally less severe. In a society where families of murder victims have the option of either carrying out court-imposed death sentences or granting clemency, the Taliban allowed victims' relatives to kill convicted murderers on several occasions. Taliban authorities at times bulldozed alleged sodomizers beneath walls, stoned adulterers to death, and amputated the hands of thieves.

The end of Taliban rule freed women in Kabul and other cities from harsh restrictions that had kept them largely shrouded, isolated, and, in many cases, impoverished. In their five years in power, the Taliban made all women wear burqas, head-to-toe coverings, outside their homes, and banned most from working. The Taliban also enforced the rural Islamic custom of purdah, which requires families to isolate women from men who are not blood relatives, even in the home, as well as the custom of mehrem, which requires women to be accompanied by male relatives when they leave their homes.

Moreover, the Taliban's ban on female employment, though enforced unevenly, reduced many women to begging in order to eat. The ban also caused a health care crisis. The Taliban allowed female doctors and nurses to return to work in 2000, though only to treat other women, following reports that many women had died after being unable to obtain medical assistance in the country's gender-segregated hospitals.

In a further sign of change, Afghanistan's new education minister, Rasoul Amin, told Reuters in late December that Karzai's government would reverse the Taliban's ban on schooling for most girls. Boys too had found it tough to attend school, in part because the majority of Afghan teachers are women and the Taliban had banned them from working. Under the Taliban, only about four out of ten boys and perhaps three out of ten girls attended school, according to the World Bank. In a move long on symbolism, Karzai named two women to his 30-member cabinet.

The Taliban's downfall also meant that Afghans generally were able to speak more freely and openly. They also were able to enjoy routine leisure activities banned by the Taliban, including listening to music, watching movies and television, and flying kites. In a country with few independent newspapers and radio stations, many Afghans get their news from foreign radio broadcasts. Afghanistan has fewer than ten regular publications, while several others appear sporadically, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on human rights in Afghanistan in 2000. During the U.S.-led military campaign, gunmen believed to be either bandits or Taliban fighters killed several foreign journalists.

For Muslim Afghans, the end of Taliban rule meant that they were no longer forced to adopt the movement's ultraconservative Islamic practices. Taliban militants had made men maintain beards of sufficient length, cover their heads, and pray five times daily. Many Muslim men whose beards were too short were jailed for short periods and forced to attend mandatory Islamic instruction. Roughly 85 percent of Afghanistan's population is Sunni Muslim, with Shiites making up most of the remainder. The Taliban drew international condemnation in 2001 for ordering Hindu Afghans to wear yellow pieces of cloth to identify themselves as non-Muslims. Taliban leaders insisted this was to protect Hindus from being punished for failing to adhere to Islamic religious practices. The Taliban were also denounced abroad after they demolished two giant, 2,000-year-old statues of Buddha in central Bamiyan Province.

Life for Afghans in rural areas formerly controlled by the Taliban may come to resemble that in traditional Northern Alliance strongholds. Villagers in these often remote parts of the country are able to go about their daily lives with little harassment, and girls can attend school. They enjoy few real rights, however, with local authorities and strongmen ruling according to whim. Soldiers of the Northern Alliance and local strongmen occasionally kill, kidnap, detain, and torture opponents and civilians and rape women, according to the U.S. State Department report.

The UN estimates that Afghanistan is the most heavily land mined country in the world despite more than a decade of internationally assisted mine clearance. Farming has been severely hampered by the threat posed by mines, and by drought, limited resources, and poor irrigation systems, roads, and other infrastructure. Aviation and financial sanctions imposed by the UN in 1999 worsened economic conditions in a country already ravaged by two decades of war.