Afghanistan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Afghanistan received a downward trend arrow to reflect the worsening security situation, which impeded the ability of civil society and humanitarian organizations to operate freely throughout the country.

Warlords in the parliament joined forces in early 2007 to push through controversial legislation granting immunity for past war crimes. Meanwhile, little progress was made on various governance issues, including attempts by the central government to combat corruption, improve transparency, and strengthen the judicial and law enforcement services. In a prevailing atmosphere of impunity, numerous human rights abuses—including attacks on aid workers, political and social activists, journalists, and schools, as well as systematic violations of women’s rights—were reported during the year. Ongoing insurgent and other violence killed more than 5,500 people in 2007, further hampering local and international organizations working to rebuild Afghanistan’s shattered infrastructure and institutions.

After decades of intermittent attempts to assert control and ward off Russian influence in the country, Britain recognized Afghanistan as a fully independent monarchy in 1921. King Muhammad Zahir Shah ruled from 1933 until he was deposed in a 1973 coup, the leaders of which established a republic. Afghanistan entered a period of continuous civil conflict in 1978, when a Marxist faction staged a coup and set out to transform the country’s highly traditional society. The Soviet Union invaded to support its allies 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 Marxist government in 1992 and then battled one another for control of Kabul, killing more than 25,000 civilians in the capital by 1995. The Taliban militia, consisting largely of students from conservative Islamic religious schools, entered the fray, seizing control of Kabul in 1996 and quickly establishing control over most of the country. Parts of northern and central Afghanistan remained in the hands of the ethnic Tajik–dominated Northern Alliance. In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States launched a military campaign aimed at toppling the Taliban regime and eliminating Saudi militant Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, al-Qaeda. The Taliban crumbled quickly, losing Kabul to Northern Alliance forces and surrendering the southern city of Kandahar by year’s end.

As a result of the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, an interim administration headed by Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Karzai took office. In June 2002, the United Nations oversaw an emergency loya jirga (gathering of representatives) that 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. One of the TA’s primary challenges was to assert central government authority while curbing the power of regional strongmen. Karzai signed a decree banning political leaders from taking part in military activity, undertook several reshuffles of provincial governors and other key officials, and initiated a voluntary program of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) in 2003.

In December of that year, a 502-member constitutional loya jirga met to debate a draft constitution, which was ratified in January 2004. It described Afghanistan as an Islamic republic in which no law should contravene the beliefs and practices of Islam, and called for a presidential system of government and a bicameral National Assembly. Equal rights for women and men were guaranteed, as was the right to practice minority religions, although human rights advocates expressed concern that enforcement mechanisms for these and other rights were inadequate.

Another milestone was the holding in October 2004 of Afghanistan’s first election since 1969, a process overseen by the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB). More than 75 percent of registered Afghans voted in a presidential poll contested by 17 candidates, including one woman. Karzai, the incumbent, won 55 percent of the vote, and in December formed a cabinet that was a balanced mix of technocrats and regional power brokers.

After delays due to logistical complications and security concerns, relatively peaceful elections were held in September 2005 for the new National Assembly and 34 provincial councils. In total, almost 5,800 candidates (over 10 percent of whom were women) stood in the elections. Disappointingly, a large number of warlords and others involved in organized crime and human rights abuses were elected; according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), 80 percent of the victorious candidates had links to militia groups.

The new parliament convened in December 2005, and since then has made little progress on addressing political and economic reforms or passing key legislation. Some analysts expressed concern that the legislative branch would be weak and largely subservient to the executive, but it did clash with Karzai in 2006 over his cabinet appointments and his nominee to head the Supreme Court. Former and current warlords in both houses of parliament pushed hard to pass a bill granting amnesty to perpetrators of past war crimes, and Karzai signed the controversial law in March 2007. However, under the amended version that was enacted, victims of abuses could pursue cases against perpetrators in the court system. A new political alliance, the United National Front of Afghanistan (UNFA), formed in February 2007 with the goal of switching to a parliamentary system and empowering a strong prime minister. Nevertheless, disparate factions still struggled to form stable coalitions in parliament, and the legislature was often at odds with the president during the year, making it difficult for him to advance the government’s agenda.

The UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which has been managed by NATO since August 2003, has gradually expanded its security and reconstruction mission from Kabul to the rest of the country. It completed its growth in 2006 by taking responsibility for the volatile south and east. The roughly 40,000 peacekeeping and combat troops of the ISAF are augmented by a separate force of about 12,000 U.S. troops engaged in counterterrorism missions. Despite the multinational troop presence and the development of the Afghan army, much of Afghanistan, particularly the south and east, remains under the sway of local military commanders, tribal leaders, warlords, drug traffickers, and petty bandits who are reluctant to submit to the central government. The Taliban have extended their influence over vast swaths of territory in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, establishing Sharia (Islamic law) courts and occupying local administrative centers.

More than 4,000 civilians, police, soldiers, officials, and foreign aid workers were killed or injured during 2007 by an increasing number of insurgent attacks, air strikes by coalition forces, and recurrent fighting among factional militias and criminal gangs. Casualties among militants have also increased as coalition forces have aggressively engaged them throughout the southern provinces. In a high-profile loss for the Taliban, senior military commander Mullah Dadullah was killed in May 2007. Several hundred civilians were killed during anti-Taliban airstrikes and other military operations in 2007, leading to mounting resentment among Afghans and protests by the Afghan government. Kidnapping has also emerged as a major concern. Afghans are frequently kidnapped for ransom, while some locals and most foreigners are abducted to force prisoner exchanges or to be killed outright.

Beginning in 2006, suicide attacks became more frequent, widespread, and effective. This trend worsened in 2007, with civilians continuing to bear the brunt of the violence. The previously more peaceful west and north of the country have witnessed an increase in attacks on aid workers, journalists, and others, both Afghan and foreign, in an apparent attempt to disrupt development work. Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi and a driver were kidnapped by the Taliban in March and then murdered, while the Italian journalist they were accompanying was released in exchange for five jailed fighters. In July, a group of 23 South Korean Christian aid workers and several other foreigners and Afghans were kidnapped, and a number were killed.

The marked deterioration in security poses a major challenge to the central and provincial governments’ efforts to control areas under their jurisdiction, deliver basic services, and engage in vital reconstruction efforts. It has also had a negative effect on the ability of civil society and humanitarian organizations to operate freely. Attempts to contain the Taliban insurgency by nonmilitary means are increasingly being considered, although the Taliban have refused to negotiate unless foreign troops leave Afghanistan and Islamic law is reimposed. A joint Afghan-Pakistani jirga attended by around 650 delegates, most of them Pashtun, was held in August 2007 with the aim of improving security along the border and boosting bilateral cooperation.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Afghanistan is not an electoral democracy. While elections have been held and the government structures mandated by the 2001 Bonn Agreement are now in place, significant problems remain with regard to the political framework, effective governance, and transparency. The 2004 constitution and the May 2005 electoral law provide for a bicameral National Assembly and a directly elected president who serves five-year terms and has the power to appoint ministers, subject to parliamentary approval. In the directly elected lower house of the National Assembly, the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), members stand for five-year terms, and in the 102-seat Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders), two-thirds of members are indirectly elected by the provinces while one-third are appointed by the president. At least 68 of the Wolesi Jirga seats are reserved for women, while 10 are reserved for the nomadic Kuchi community. Provisions for women’s representation have also been made for the Meshrano Jirga and provincial councils.

The October 2004 presidential election was judged to be relatively free and fair 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. Legislative elections originally scheduled for 2004 were postponed until September 2005 to allow more time for the government to map out district boundaries, conduct a census, enact election laws, and improve the security situation. These polls were also marred by what the JEMB termed “serious localized fraud,” intimidation, some violence, and other irregularities, although the overall results were broadly accepted both by Afghans and by the international community. The safety of winners in the postelection period was threatened by a law known as the “assassination clause,” which stated that if the winning candidate died or was disqualified prior to the convening of the new parliament, his seat would be filled by the candidate with the next highest number of votes. However, the law was amended in 2006 following the assassination of several winners in late 2005.

The elected central government is treated as legitimate by various regional strongmen, but its writ over many areas outside Kabul remains limited. The parliament contains a broadly representative blend of ethnic groups and, as mandated, a high proportion of women. Observers have expressed concern that more than half of elected members maintain ties to armed groups or are former warlords implicated in past human rights abuses. The balance of power between the executive and the legislature, as well as between the appointed provincial governors and newly elected local bodies, remains contentious and subject to negotiation.

Restrictions on political activity continue. Levels of political freedom are higher in Kabul and the eastern provinces, but a prevailing atmosphere of violence, insecurity, or repression in the south and west of the country contributes to widespread self-censorship and limits political choices. The 2003 Political Parties Law prohibits the registration of parties that are backed by armed forces; oppose Islam; or promote racial, religious, or sectarian strife. Critics have warned that the law’s vague language could be exploited to deny registration on flimsy grounds. In addition, the adoption of the single-nontransferable-vote system for the 2005 legislative elections—in which voters choose individual candidates, and party names or symbols do not appear on the ballot—was viewed by analysts as a disadvantage for new political parties. Parties lack a formal role within the legislature, which further weakens their ability to contribute to a stable parliamentary system, according to a 2006 report by the International Crisis Group. During 2007, there were several attacks on members of parliament as a result of political rivalries. Outspoken female lawmaker Malalai Joya was suspended by the parliament in May 2007 for criticizing her colleagues, a contravention of a parliamentary rule that guarantees freedom of speech. A number of legislators were killed or wounded in a bomb attack by suspected Taliban insurgents in Baghlan province in November.

Widespread corruption, nepotism, and cronyism remain issues of concern, although the government 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. Corrupt behavior is exacerbated by extremely inadequate salaries for public sector workers, who take bribes to make ends meet. Under pressure from the donor community, the government has attempted to take a hard line against corruption in politics and the administration. President Hamid Karzai in 2006 gave the attorney general full authority to investigate and prosecute cases of official corruption, but while probes and arrests continued to take place in 2007, those involving well-connected figures generally made little headway. Afghanistan was included in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for the first time in 2007, ranking 172 out of 180 countries surveyed.

Afghan media continue to grow and diversify but faced rising threats in 2007, mostly in the form of physical attacks and intimidation. A growing number of journalists have been arrested, threatened, or harassed by politicians, security services, and others in positions of power as a result of their coverage. Kamran Mir Hazar, editor of a popular news website, was detained several times by national security forces in 2007 following several critical stories. Many reporters practice self-censorship, avoiding sensitive issues such as Islam, national unity, corruption, and crimes committed by specific warlords. Journalists are also increasingly being targeted by insurgents. In one case, the Taliban in March 2007 kidnapped Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo along with his Afghan driver and his fixer and interpreter, Ajmal Nasqhbandi. The driver was immediately beheaded, while Mastrogiacomo was released two weeks later in exchange for five Taliban fighters. However, when authorities refused to accede to further demands, Nasqhbandi was also killed. A prominent female radio journalist, Zakia Zaki, was murdered by unknown gunmen in June, and a female television presenter was killed in the same week. Convicted murderer Reza Khan, sentenced to death for killing four journalists in 2001, was executed in October.

A revised press law passed in 2005 guarantees freedom of expression and prohibits censorship, but it retains restrictions including registration requirements and overly broad guidelines on content. It also establishes five commissions intended to regulate media agencies and investigate complaints of misconduct. Amendments to the media law proposed in May 2007 could give authorities greater control over content and include vague prohibitions on defamation; these were opposed by local journalists. Media diversity and freedom are markedly higher in Kabul than elsewhere in the country, and some local warlords display limited tolerance for independent media in their areas. However, the number of outlets has grown steadily. Authorities have granted approximately 300 licenses to independent publications, and dozens of private radio stations and eight private television channels are now broadcasting. Some, such as the popular Tolo TV, have been criticized by conservative clerics for airing programs that “oppose Islam and national values,” and several stations have been fined or given warnings for broadcasting “un-Islamic” material or offending local culture. The use of the internet and mobile telephones continues to grow rapidly and has broadened the flow of news and other information, particularly for urban Afghans.

Religious freedom has improved since the fall of the ultraconservative Taliban government in late 2001, but it is still hampered by intolerant attitudes that lead to violence against and harassment of religious minorities and reformist Muslims, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 International Religious Freedom Report. The new constitution establishes Islam as the official religion but does not prohibit the practice of other faiths. Proselytizing by and conversion to such faiths are not legally prohibited but are strongly discouraged, and blasphemy and apostasy by Muslims are considered capital crimes. Shias (who make up roughly 20 percent of the population), particularly those from the Hazara ethnic group, have traditionally faced discrimination by the Sunni majority. Relations between the two sects remain somewhat strained, although conditions have vastly improved under the Karzai administration. Sectarian riots, possibly stoked by political rivals, erupted in Herat in February 2006, killing 8 people and injuring more than 200. The country’s few non-Muslim residents are generally able to practice their faiths, although Hindus and Sikhs have had some difficulty building new houses of worship and accessing their traditional cremation grounds, and they report discrimination in public sector employment. In May 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Baha’i faith was distinct from Islam and represented a form of blasphemy, a finding that could have adverse affects on the country’s small Baha’i community, particularly regarding marriage. During the year, there were a number of attacks by militant groups on mosques and clerics who were openly critical of the Taliban or who expressed progovernment views.

Academic freedom is not officially restricted. In an effort to counter the teaching of extremist ideologies in Taliban-dominated madrassahs, or religious schools, the government announced plans to open state-run madrassahs throughout the country, with a national curriculum and textbooks that emphasize moderate Islamic teachings and human rights. Schools, predominantly those with female teachers or students, have faced threats and deadly attacks by fundamentalists and local warlords, especially in the south. This trend reportedly worsened in 2006, according to a Human Rights Watch report, with more than 150 schools torched and several hundred more closed for fear of being attacked, depriving hundreds of thousands of students of educational opportunities. However, there was a drop in such attacks in late 2007, following increased government security measures and pledges from tribal elders to help protect schools, according to the IRIN news service.

The constitution has formally restored rights to assembly and association, subject to some restrictions, but they are upheld erratically from region to region. Police and other security personnel have occasionally used excessive force when confronted with demonstrations or protests. Several dozen people were killed or injured in May 2007 when police tried to disperse violent protests against the governor of Jowzjan province.

The work of hundreds of international and Afghan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is not formally constrained by the authorities, but their ability to operate freely and effectively is impeded by the worsening security situation in much of the country. Both foreign and Afghan NGO staff have been targeted for kidnapping or violent attack by criminals and insurgents, and several dozen were killed during 2007, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office. Civil society activists, particularly those who focus on human rights or accountability issues, continue to face some threats and harassment.

Despite broad constitutional protections for workers, labor rights are not well defined, and there are currently no enforcement or dispute-resolution mechanisms. UNICEF has estimated that a quarter of Afghan children between the ages of 7 and 14 are involved in various forms of work, mainly in the domestic sector, due to widespread poverty.

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. Outside influence over the judiciary remains strong, and judges and lawyers are often unable to act independently because of threats from local power brokers or armed groups. Salaries for judges are woefully inadequate, and corruption is widespread. In rural areas with no police or judicial institutions, unelected and often conservative tribal councils dispense justice. The Supreme Court, composed of religious scholars who have little knowledge of civil jurisprudence, is particularly in need of reform; the replacement of Fazl Hadi Shinwari as chief justice in 2006 was a positive step. The 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 on the construction of courts and correctional facilities. Many Afghans still do not have access to judicial or legal services, and local warlords act with impunity in parts of the country that remain outside the central government’s reach. In the south, the Taliban have established Sharia courts that employ a harsh form of Islamic law.

Prison conditions remain extremely poor. Many inmates are held illegally, and prisoners are forced to rely on relatives for food and other provisions, according to the AIHRC. Prison riots in Kabul in February 2006 left 5 people dead and over 50 wounded. In July 2006, human rights groups raised concerns over government plans to reestablish the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which had been notorious for imposing severe restrictions on behavior and dress under the Taliban. The proposed department, which would be part of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, was still being considered by the president’s office at the end of 2007.

Since taking power in 2002, the administration has faced the question of how to deal with perpetrators of past abuses. The cabinet in 2005 approved an Action Plan on Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation, including commemoration for victims, truth-seeking and justice mechanisms, and the vetting of potential state employees, but the plan was not formally launched until December 2006. Many perpetrators were elected to the National Assembly despite calls for them to be disqualified, and some, such as warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, have established dominant positions in the new parliament, making any attempt at prosecution difficult. In March 2007, President Karzai signed a law initiated by parliament that provides a sweeping amnesty for war crimes committed prior to 2002, drawing criticism from human rights groups and some lawmakers.

In a prevailing climate of impunity, government ministers, as well as warlords in some provinces, sanction 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 as well as monitoring and investigating abuses, receives hundreds of complaints of rights violations each year. In addition to the abuses by security forces, reported violations have involved land-grabbing and forced migration, kidnapping and child trafficking, and forced marriage. In September 2007, the AIHRC raised an alarm after parliament voted to curtail its autonomy, seeking to have final say on the appointment of its commissioners and chairman.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of abuse of Afghan detainees by U.S. forces over the past several years, and eight detainees are confirmed to have died while in U.S. custody. Few of the U.S. service personnel involved in these deaths have been charged or punished, although CIA contractor David Passaro was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison in February 2007 for the beating death of an Afghan detainee. The AIHRC has not been allowed access to detention centers, where some 500 Afghans are being held by coalition forces. In addition, some warlords, political leaders, and the national intelligence agency maintain their own prisons and do not allow access to detainees, many of whom are held without charge.

The Bonn Agreement recognized the need to create a national army and a professional police force, but progress on both fronts has been slow. By the end of 2007, the Afghan National Army had a strength of approximately 38,000 personnel, out of a proposed force of 70,000. However, the existing soldiers are well trained and have participated ably in a variety of counterterrorism operations. The army has also been deployed to prevent factional clashes, and provided security around polling centers during the 2005 elections. In contrast, the Afghan National Police, numbering about 60,000 officers, have been plagued by inadequate training, illiteracy, corruption, involvement in drug trafficking, and high levels of desertion.

Several thousand civilians were killed in 2007 as a result of attacks by the Taliban and other Islamist groups; during localized fighting between ethnic factions, particularly in the north; or during combat between Taliban fighters on one side and government and coalition forces on the other. Insurgents shifted tactics in 2006 by dramatically stepping up suicide attacks, and the trend continued in 2007. The security situation in much of the country has continued to decline despite the expansion of ISAF to the south and east in 2006. In addition to political and terrorist violence, criminal gangs kidnap foreigners and prominent Afghans for ransom, while drug traffickers and local warlords use force and extortion to defend their operations and influence.

An estimated 2,000 illegal armed groups, with as many as 125,000 members, continue to operate. A voluntary DDR program targeting irregular militia forces between 2003 and 2005, and the follow-up Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) initiative, succeeded in demobilizing over 60,000 militiamen and collected a considerable amount of weaponry. However, more recently, progress on disarmament has stalled amid worsening security, and there are still an estimated 100,000 illegal weapons, mostly small arms, in the country. Many civilians, particularly in rural areas where the government is unable to provide security, are increasingly reluctant to hand over their weapons. In October 2007, the DIAG’s mandate was extended until 2011.

More than 3.7 million Afghan refugees have returned to their homes in the last six years, but the rate of returns has slowed, and several million remain in Pakistan and Iran. More than 150,000 civilians continue to be displaced within the country; some 100,000 more have been displaced in the last two years as a result of increased fighting in the southern provinces and smaller skirmishes between warlords in the north. Humanitarian agencies and Afghan authorities are ill-equipped to deal with the displaced. Factors like the poor security situation and widespread land-grabbing have prevented refugees from returning to their homes, and many congregate instead around major urban centers. In the absence of a functioning legal system, the state is unable to effectively protect property rights.

The end of Taliban rule freed women from extremely harsh restrictions and punishments that kept them veiled, isolated, and, in many cases, impoverished. Women’s formal rights to education and employment have been restored, and in some areas, women are once again participating in public life. The new constitution contains provisions guaranteeing equal rights for women and reserving a quarter of the seats in the Wolesi Jirga and provincial councils for women. Record numbers of women registered to vote—an average 41 percent of all registered voters were women—and took part in the 2004 and 2005 elections. In addition, more than 500 women, about 10 percent of all candidates, registered to contest the 2005 parliamentary elections. However, a 2005 Human Rights Watch report noted that women in the political sphere, particularly those standing as candidates, faced significant threats and harassment from armed factions and conservative religious leaders. Social norms restricting women’s ability to travel independently and appear in public, particularly in the south, also negatively affected their efforts to run for office and participate fully as members of parliament.

Despite women’s political gains, societal discrimination and violence remain pervasive, with domestic violence occurring in an estimated 95 percent of households, according to one survey. Women’s choices regarding marriage and divorce remain circumscribed by custom and discriminatory laws, and the forced marriage of young girls to older men or widows to their husbands’ male relations is a problem. Nearly 60 percent of Afghan girls are married before the legal age of 16, according to UNICEF. However, in March 2007 the Supreme Court approved a new formal marriage contract stipulating that the bride must be at least 16, a move welcomed by activists who hope that it will lead to fewer underage marriages. To the extent that it functions, the justice system discriminates against women. In most cases, according to a 2005 Amnesty International report, complaints of violence against women—including abduction, rape, forced marriage, and murder—are not adequately investigated by authorities. Cases of self-immolation by women seeking to escape forced or abusive marriages, particularly in the provinces of Herat and Kandahar, continued to be an issue in 2007, the AIHRC reported. Honor killings of women believed to have brought shame on their families are also reportedly on the rise. As a result of increasing lawlessness, women and children are subject to abduction, trafficking, and sexual violence. In certain areas, warlords impose Taliban-style dress and behavioral restrictions on women, further circumscribing their freedoms.