Afghanistan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Afghanistan's political rights rating improved from 6 to 5 due to the holding of a reasonably free and fair presidential election in October.


Afghanistan made measurable progress towards establishing the framework for an inclusive democratic state during 2004. A new constitution providing for a presidential system of government with a bicameral parliament and guaranteeing equal rights to women was adopted in January. Despite concerns over threats to candidates and voters and minor irregularities in the voting process, an unexpectedly successful presidential election was held in October in which incumbent president Hamid Karzai won 55 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, the government continued to face a number of hurdles, the most pressing of which is an environment of pervasive insecurity throughout much of the country, which has hampered the work of local and international humanitarian organizations in rebuilding Afghanistan's shattered infrastructure and institutions and the efforts of the central government to exert its authority over the provinces. Although the level of personal autonomy has substantially increased since the fall of the ultraconservative Taliban regime in 2001, numerous human rights abuses, including attacks on humanitarian aid workers and violations of women's rights, were reported during the year.

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 contest for influence in Afghanistan, Britain recognized the country as an independent monarchy in 1921. King Zahir Shah ruled from 1933 until he was deposed in a 1973 coup. Afghanistan entered a period of continuous civil conflict in 1978, when a Communist coup set out to transform this highly traditional society. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979, but faced fierce resistance from U.S.-backed mujahideen (guerrilla fighters) until its troops finally withdrew in 1989.

The 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. The Taliban militia, consisting largely of students in conservative Islamic religious schools, entered the fray and seized control of Kabul in 1996. 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 the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance coalition.

In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States launched a military campaign in October 2001 aimed at toppling the Taliban regime and eliminating Saudi militant Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, al-Qaeda. Simultaneously, Northern Alliance forces engaged the Taliban from the areas under their control. The Taliban crumbled quickly, losing Kabul to Northern Alliance forces in November and surrendering the southern city of Kandahar, the movement's spiritual headquarters, in December.

As a result of the Bonn agreement of December 2001, an interim administration enjoying the nominal support of Afghanistan's provincial leaders and headed by Karzai, a Pashtun tribal leader, took office. 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, who are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, would not trust a government headed by ethnic minorities. In June 2002, the United Nations administered an emergency loya jirga (gathering of representatives), presided over by the formerly exiled King Zahir Shah, which appointed a Transitional Administration (TA) to rule Afghanistan for a further two years. Karzai won the votes of more than 80 percent of the delegates to become president and head of the TA, decisively defeating two other candidates. The Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance filled more than half the cabinet positions, including the key positions of ministers of defense and the interior, while the remainder were given to Pashtuns and representatives of other ethnic groups.

The UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), over which NATO assumed command in August 2003, is responsible for providing security in Kabul, but many areas outside the capital remain unstable and lawless. Military commanders, tribal leaders, rogue warlords, and petty bandits continue to hold sway. Bolstered by arms, money, and support from the United States and neighboring governments, some warlords maintain private armies and are reluctant to submit to the leadership of the central administration. Nearly 1,000 civilians, officials, and foreign aid workers were killed and injured during 2004 by an increasing number of bombings, rocket attacks, and other sporadic violence by suspected Taliban sympathizers, as well as recurrent fighting between various factional militias.

Seeking to curb the power of regional strongmen, Karzai signed a decree in December 2002 banning political leaders from taking part in military activity; he has also undertaken several reshuffles of provincial governors and other key officials in the past two years. The TA initiated a voluntary program of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) in October 2003, and heavy weapons began to be removed from Kabul in January 2004. In a significant victory, the central government managed to oust regional strongman Ismael Khan from his position as governor of Herat in September.

In December 2003, a 502-member constitutional loya jirga (CLJ) met to debate a draft constitution, which had been prepared by a constitutional commission earlier in the year and widely circulated in order to elicit feedback from Afghan citizens. Because of disagreements among the delegates over issues such as the system of government and national languages, proceedings stretched on for three weeks before the amended draft was ratified in January 2004. It describes Afghanistan as an Islamic republic in which no law should contravene the beliefs and practices of Islam, and provides for a presidential system of government and a National Assembly composed of two houses. Equal rights for women and men are guaranteed, as is the right to practice minority religions, although human rights advocates expressed concern that inadequate mechanisms were put in place to guarantee the provision of these and other rights.

For most of 2004, the focus was on preparing for Afghanistan's first elections since 1969, a process that was overseen by the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB). While a decision was taken to postpone legislative elections until 2005 because of logistical complications and security concerns, on October 9 more than 75 percent of registered Afghans voted in a delayed presidential poll contested by 17 candidates, including one woman. Karzai, the incumbent, won 55 percent of the vote, while main challengers Yunus Qanooni, Haji Mohammed Mohaqeq, and Abdul Rashid Dostum won 16, 11, and 10 percent, respectively. Initially, a group of opposition candidates contested the result, but in deference to public opinion, they agreed to respect the findings of a panel established to investigate their complaints. On November 3, the panel concluded that the shortcomings with the electoral process would not have affected the overall result, thereby confirming Karzai's victory. Despite several assassination attempts and other attacks, the Taliban were unable to significantly disrupt the election as they had threatened, thus raising questions about their level of support.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The political rights and civil liberties of most Afghans remained circumscribed in 2004, although the adoption of a new, moderate constitution and the holding of a relatively free and fair presidential election were key positive improvements. The constitution and electoral law passed in June provide for a directly elected president who has the power to appoint ministers (subject to parliamentary approval) and a bicameral National Assembly composed of a directly elected 249-seat Wolesi Jirga (House of the People) and a 102-seat Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders). Legislative elections originally scheduled for 2004 were postponed until 2005, to allow more time for the government to map out district boundaries, enact election laws, and improve the security situation. However, despite allegations of intimidation by militias and insurgent groups, multiple voter registrations, partisanship within the JEMB, and other irregularities such as ballot stuffing and the improper use of indelible ink on voting day, the presidential election held in October 2004 was judged to be reasonably free and fair.

In the run-up to legislative elections, restrictions on political activity remain a concern. A law passed in October 2003 prohibits the registration of political parties that are backed by armed forces or which oppose Islam or promote racial, religious, or sectarian hatred and violence, but this provision has not been strictly enforced. Some delegates to the December 2003 CLJ complained that warlords and Islamic fundamentalists had threatened them during the proceedings. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) noted in July that levels of political freedom were higher in Kabul and the eastern provinces, but that extremist violence and widespread self-censorship were prevalent in the south and west of the country and could be a significant factor in limiting people's political choices. According to a November International Crisis Group report, nonmilitarized and opposition political parties have found it difficult to campaign openly because of the security situation and pressure from factional militias.

The TA functioned as a central government with both executive and legislative authority, but its writ over areas outside Kabul remained limited. While two women and a broad range of ethnic groups held positions in the cabinet, concerns were raised about the domination of the Northern Alliance over state structures, particularly the security apparatus. In the absence of a legislature, input from Afghans into decision-making processes has taken the form of participation in the indirectly elected loya jirgas that have met to choose the main officeholders in the TA and, more recently, to debate and ratify the new constitution.

Widespread corruption, nepotism, and cronyism are growing issues of concern, although the TA has professed a commitment to improving transparency and accountability, particularly in the disbursement of foreign aid, which makes up a significant part of the national budget.

Afghanistan's media environment remained fragile although some improvements were seen in 2004. A new press law adopted in May guarantees the right to freedom of expression and prohibits censorship, but does retain certain restrictions such as registration requirements and overly broad guidelines on content. Authorities have granted more than 250 licenses to independent publications, and several dozen private radio stations and a number of television stations are now broadcasting. Media diversity and freedom is markedly higher in Kabul, and some warlords do not allow independent media in the areas under their control. However, pressures on journalists in Herat eased considerably following the ouster of local strongman Ismael Khan in September. A number of journalists were threatened or harassed by government ministers and others in positions of power as a result of their reporting. Many practice self-censorship or avoid writing about sensitive issues such as Islam, national unity, or crimes committed by specific warlords. The two employees of the Kabul-based newspaper Aftab who were charged with blasphemy in 2003 fled the country and remain abroad. In September, U.S. military personnel seized a BBC reporter from his house and took him to Bagram air base, where he was interrogated for 24 hours before being released with an apology.

Religious freedom improved following the fall of the ultraconservative Taliban movement in late 2001, as the TA attempted to pursue a policy of greater religious tolerance despite some pressure from Islamic fundamentalist groups. The minority Shia population, particularly those from the Hazara ethnic group, has traditionally faced discrimination from the Sunni majority, and relations between the two groups remain somewhat strained. The small numbers of non-Muslim residents in Afghanistan are now generally able to practice their faith, although Hindus and Sikhs have had difficulty in obtaining cremation grounds and building new houses of worship. The constitution ratified in January 2004 establishes Islam as the official state religion but does not prohibit the practice of other religions, according to the U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report.

Academic freedom is not restricted. However, government regulations prohibit married women from attending high school, and in 2003, several thousand young women were expelled from school. In some provinces, schools have also been the target of threats and violent attacks by fundamentalist groups.

With the fall of the Taliban, residents of Kabul and most other cities were able to go about their daily lives with fewer restrictions and were less likely to be subjected to harassment from the authorities. Rights to assembly, association, and free speech were formally restored, but are applied erratically in different regions. In addition, police and security forces have occasionally used excessive force when confronted with demonstrations or public protests. In May 2003, police arrested and beat students protesting nepotism at Kabul University, according to the U.S. State Department's 2003 human rights report. Both international and Afghan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are able to operate freely, but their effectiveness is impeded by the poor security situation in much of the country. The incidence of attacks against foreign humanitarian organizations has increased since mid-2003; in June, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) decided to pull out of Afghanistan after five of its staff were killed by unidentified gunmen. Despite broad constitutional protections for workers, labor rights are not well defined, and there are currently no enforcement or resolution mechanisms.

The new administration faced the question of whether to bring to justice, co-opt, or simply ignore perpetrators of past abuses. There is no functioning, nationwide legal system, and justice in many places is administered on the basis of a mixture of legal codes by judges with minimal training. In addition, outside influence over the judiciary remains strong; in many areas, judges and lawyers are frequently unable to act independently because of threats from local power brokers or armed groups, and bribery is also a concern. The Supreme Court, stacked with 150 religious scholars who have little knowledge of jurisprudence and headed by an 80-year-old conservative, is particularly in need of reform. The Karzai administration's plans to rebuild the judiciary have proceeded slowly, although a new criminal procedure code was promulgated in early 2004 and some progress has been made with the construction of courts and correctional facilities.

While the Bonn agreement recognized the need to create a national army and a professional police force, progress on both fronts has been limited. By August, only 13,700 recruits to the Afghan National Army (ANA) had been trained, out of a proposed force of 70,000, and attrition levels have been high. Nevertheless, ANA forces were deployed during the year to prevent factional clashes in Herat and Maimana, and also helped to provide security around polling centers during the election. In October 2003, the TA initiated a voluntary DDR program that is eventually intended to target an estimated 100,000 armed men in Afghanistan, but by November 2004, only 22,000 militiamen had been demobilized.

In a prevailing climate of impunity, government ministers as well as warlords in some provinces sanctioned widespread abuses by the police, military, and intelligence forces under their command, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, extortion, and extrajudicial killings. The AIHRC, which was formed in August 2002 and focuses on raising awareness of human rights issues in addition to monitoring and investigating abuses, received more than 2,000 complaints of rights violations during the second half of 2004, including torture, land-grabbing and forced migration, kidnapping, and forced marriage. A Human Rights Watch report released in March documents numerous cases of abuse of Afghan detainees by U.S. forces, and eight detainees are confirmed to have died while in custody. However, in September, the U.S. military brought charges against a serviceman accused of mistreating Afghan prisoners at Bagram air base in December 2002.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed as a result of bombings, rocket attacks, and other acts of terror by unknown assailants; during localized fighting between ethnic factions, particularly in the North; or during skirmishes between Taliban supporters on one side and government forces and the U.S. military on the other. Both the foreign and Afghan staff of a number of international organizations and nongovernmental aid agencies have been targeted for attack, particularly in provinces with an active Taliban presence, and dozens were killed during the year. In October 2003, the United Nations voted that the ISAF should expand its operations beyond Kabul, but because of continued reluctance on the part of the international community to significantly expand these forces, ISAF's total strength was estimated at only 6,500 in July 2004. Despite the establishment of over a dozen Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) consisting of mixed groups of U.S. and NATO military forces and development personnel in various regional centers, the security situation in much of the country continued to be extremely poor.

Several hundred thousand Afghans returned to their homes during 2004, but well over a million refugees remain in both Pakistan and Iran, and in addition, more than 150,000 civilians continue to be displaced within the country. Humanitarian agencies and Afghan authorities have been ill-equipped to deal with the scale of the repatriation, while the poor security situation compounded by widespread land-grabbing meant that many refugees were unable to return to their homes and instead congregated in and around major urban centers.

The end of Taliban rule freed women from harsh restrictions and punishments that had kept them veiled, isolated, and, in many cases, impoverished. Women's formal rights to education and employment were restored, and in some areas they were once again able to participate in public life. Several hundred female delegates took part in the CLJ, and the constitution that was ratified contained the significant provisions of guaranteeing equal rights for women and reserving a quarter of the seats in the Wolesi Jirga for women. Record numbers of women were registered to vote - an average 41 percent of all registered voters were women - and took part in the October elections. However, an October Human Rights Watch report noted that women in the public sphere, particularly those who advocate for women's rights, continue to face threats and harassment from armed factions and conservative religious leaders.

Women's choices regarding marriage and divorce, particularly their ability to choose a marriage partner, remain circumscribed by custom and discriminatory laws, and the forced marriage of young girls to older men or of widows to their husband's male relation is a problem, according to Amnesty International. To the extent that it functions, the justice system discriminates against women, and they are unable to get legal redress for crimes committed against them. A March BBC report noted that the incidence of cases of self-immolation by women seeking to escape abusive marriages, particularly in the province of Herat, was a growing concern. As a result of continued lawlessness, women and children are increasingly subjected to abduction, trafficking, and sexual violence. In certain areas, ruling warlords impose Taliban-style dress and behavioral restrictions on women. While record numbers of children have returned to school, a number of girls' schools were subject to arson and rocket attacks from Islamic fundamentalists during the year.