Freedom in the World
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Afghanistan has a progressive constitution marrying its Islamic identity with commitment to a wide range of internationally recognized rights, within the framework of an electoral democracy. In practice, citizens have never enjoyed the full range of political and civic rights promised to them. Successive disputed elections and a tendency towards bargains between elites have weakened democratic accountability. High levels of violence, limited state authority, endemic corruption, and contested ideas of Muslim identity all limit political rights and civil liberties.
- In September, it was announced that the current National Unity Government (NUG), led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, intended to serve Ghani’s full, five-year presidential term, but without convening a loya jirga, or grand council, to discuss constitutional reform.
- Also in September, a new electoral law was passed by presidential decree, and in November, new members were appointed to the election commission. However, no date was set for the overdue parliamentary elections.
- Members of the Hazara ethnic group led mass demonstrations in Kabul in the spring and summer, and authorities for the most part took a permissive stance toward the protests. However, one such demonstration was attacked by suicide bombers, killing some 80 people.
- Around 700,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan, most of whom had been pushed out of Pakistan.
The National Unity Government, established to address a dispute over the result of the 2014 presidential election, survived its second year. Some elements of an emergent opposition had propagated the idea that the political agreement that had established the coalition government was to last only for two years, and that upon its expiration the NUG must convene a loya jirga to discuss constitutional reforms that would better define who was to hold executive power. Instead, it was announced that their NUG would operate for Ghani’s full five-year presidential term.
In September, the president issued a decree containing provisions of long-awaited electoral reforms, and in November, new members were appointed to the election commission. However, no date was set for parliamentary elections, nor was it clear how elections would be possible in the prevailing insecurity. The parliament elected in 2010 continued to govern, well past its original term.
The Taliban increased their control over Afghan territory, while violence against civilians continued at levels comparable to the previous year.
A highly competent attorney general was appointed, but faced a major challenge in terms of restoring the rule of law. The most prominent example of the entrenched impunity in Afghanistan came when the first vice president was accused of ordering assault and unlawful detention, and efforts to investigate the claims stalled.
A pattern of mass forced migration became even more complex in 2016. The Afghan exodus to Europe continued, though on a smaller scale than in 2015. Meanwhile, harassment of Afghans in Pakistan prompted some 700,000 people to return to Afghanistan, with the needs of returnees severely straining public infrastructure.
Afghanistan’s president is directly elected for up to two 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. In the 102-seat Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders), the upper house, the provincial councils elect two-thirds of members for three- or four-year terms, and the president appoints the remaining one-third for five-year terms. The constitution envisages the election of district councils, which would also send members to the Meshrano Jirga, though these have not been established. Ten Wolesi Jirga seats are reserved for the nomadic Kuchi community, including at least three women, and 65 of the chamber’s general seats are reserved for women.
In the 2014 presidential election, the two first-round winners—Abdullah, a former foreign minister, who received 45 percent of the vote, and Ghani, a former finance minister, who took 32 percent—faced off in a final round held that June, with a high reported turnout. After the Independent Election Commission (IEC) published preliminary results showing Ghani leading by more than 10 percentage points, the Abdullah camp alleged voter fraud, claimed victory, and threatened to overthrow the government. The United States brokered an agreement calling for an internationally supervised audit and the formation of the National Unity Government. Ghani became president, and Abdullah became chief executive, a new post resembling that of a prime minister. The final vote tallies for the two candidates were not officially announced.
The April 2014 provincial council elections were also drawn out due to complaints over irregularities and a large quantity of fraudulent votes. It was not until October 2014 that the election commission announced the winners of the 458 council seats.
The most recent parliamentary elections, held in September 2010, were characterized by widespread fraud. The parliament’s term expired in 2015, with the NUG and current lawmakers unable to agree on reforms that would pave the way for the next elections. The parliament elected in 2010 was still seated throughout 2016, with a presidential decree allowing members to serve until fresh elections were held. In September 2016, after two unsuccessful attempts, a new electoral law was passed by presidential decree, amid some confusion about its content and the legality of its various provisions. In November, new IEC members were appointed. However, at year’s end no date had been set for the overdue elections; there is no clarity on how redrawing constituency boundaries would be achieved; and some leading politicians had expressed concern over the lack of progress towards issuing reliable digital identification for voters. Widespread insecurity also made it impossible to guarantee conditions for free and fair elections across the country.
Afghanistan’s electoral system uses the single nontransferable vote, with most candidates for elected office running as independents and participating in fluid alliances linked to local and regional patronage networks. Political parties, many of them operating within coalitions, played an active role in backing candidates for the 2014 presidential election. However, parties lack a formal role within the legislature, weakening their ability to contribute to stable policymaking and legislative processes. Despite their limited relevance in Afghanistan’s government, parties have been free to seek registration since 2005, and dozens have completed the process.
The Taliban have consistently opposed the holding of elections. Although their calls to boycott the 2014 election were widely ignored, the presence of various armed groups and local strongmen, including those enlisted by the government as anti-Taliban militias, poses a major obstacle to free public participation in the political process, especially outside major urban centers. Government officials and politicians at all levels are regularly targeted for assassination.
The United States maintained about 8,400 military personnel in Afghanistan through the end of 2016. In July, U.S. president Barack Obama slowed the pace of troop withdrawal in response to the intensification of Taliban violence. The United States covers the bulk of the operating costs of the Afghan security forces. Although the NUG was formed on the basis of an agreement brokered by a U.S. envoy, both the United States and the Kabul government insist that the latter enjoys full sovereignty and control over political decisions.
The constitution recognizes multiple ethnic and linguistic minorities and provides more guarantees of equal status to minorities than historically have been available in Afghanistan. Since 2001, the traditionally marginalized Shiite Muslim minority, which includes most ethnic Hazaras, have enjoyed increased levels of political representation and participation in national institutions. Nevertheless, participation is curtailed for all segments of the population by lack of security, flawed elections, and the dominance of local patronage networks.
The NUG struggled to field a full cabinet in 2016. During the first half of the year, the parliament finally approved nominees for attorney general, defense and interior ministers, and intelligence chief. But later in the year, the cabinet started to unravel. In November, the parliament summoned various ministers to account for their failure to spend the development budgets allocated to their ministries, and promptly passed votes of no confidence against several deemed to have managed their budgets poorly.
Corruption remains a key concern in national life. In addition to depressing state revenues, endemic corruption reduces military effectiveness and undermines government legitimacy, and plays into Taliban claims that the Kabul government and ruling elite are inherently corrupt. In a December 2016 report, Integrity Watch Afghanistan estimated that Afghans paid approximately $3 billion in bribes to public officials during the year; 71 percent of Afghans believed that corruption was worse in 2016 than in 2014 and 2015.
The NUG has made efforts to address corruption in the public procurement program. Corrupt political appointments remain problematic, with some lucrative postings in the interior ministry in effect being bought and sold. Major corruption prosecutions are uncommon, and during 2016 no further progress was reported on recovering assets of the failed Kabul Bank.
Afghanistan hosts a vibrant media sector, with multiple outlets in print, radio, and television that collectively carry a wide range of views and are generally uncensored. Media providers include independent and commercial firms, as well as a state broadcaster and outlets tied to specific political interests. The rapid expansion in access to mobile phones, the internet, and social media has allowed many Afghans greater access to diverse views. Facebook alone is estimated to have a million users. The NUG has taken a public position in support of media freedom and has cooperated with initiatives to counter security threats to the media. However, amid the ongoing insurgency, media have faced both direct targeting and collateral damage. One local watchdog reported 415 violent attacks on the media in 2016, with 14 journalists killed.
While religious freedom has improved since 2001, it is still hampered by violence and discrimination aimed at religious minorities and reformist Muslims. The constitution established Islam as the official religion and guaranteed freedom of worship to other religions. Blasphemy and apostasy by Muslims are considered capital crimes, and non-Muslim proselytizing is strongly discouraged. Militant groups have targeted mosques and clerics as part of the larger civil conflict. Hindus, Sikhs, and Shiite Muslims, particularly those from the Hazara ethnic group, face official obstacles and discrimination by the Sunni Muslim majority. Moreover, conservative social attitudes, intolerance, and the inability or unwillingness of law enforcement officials to defend individual freedoms mean that those perceived as violating religious and social norms are highly vulnerable to abuse.
Academic freedom is largely tolerated in government-controlled areas. In addition to public schooling, there has been a growth in private education, with new universities enjoying full autonomy from the government. Government security forces and the Taliban have both taken over schools to use as military posts, which creates a sense of insecurity even after the forces withdraw. The expansion of Taliban control in rural areas has left an increasing number of public schools outside of government control. The Taliban operate an education commission in parallel to the official ministry of education. Although their practices vary between areas, some schools under Taliban control reportedly allowed teachers to continue teaching, but banned certain subjects and replaced them with Islamic studies. In August 2016 the Taliban kidnapped two university professors at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, and a fortnight later sent gunmen into the campus, where they killed 13 students and staff.
Although private discussion in government-held areas is largely free and unrestrained, discussion of a political nature is more dangerous for Afghans living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. The government is not known to illegally restrict or monitor the internet.
The constitution guarantees the rights to assembly and association, subject to some restrictions, but they are upheld erratically from region to region. The largest demonstrations to take place in 2016 focused on the routing of a major electricity transmission line that would deliver energy from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan. A new activist group, the Enlightenment Movement, with a base in the Hazara community, staged major rallies in Kabul in May and July in connection with concerns about the project. Although authorities took extensive security precautions to exclude demonstrators from the city center, overall the government response to the civic mobilization was permissive. However, the July demonstration ended in a massacre, when suicide bombers killed some 80 participants. The Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, which was widely understood as a sectarian act, as the demonstrators were largely Shia and the march presented Islamic State with an opportunity to hit back at the assertiveness of this traditionally oppressed minority sect.
The constitution guarantees the right to form associations and there is a relatively enabling legal framework and supportive attitude from the national authorities. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play an important role in the country, particularly in urban areas, where thousands of cultural, welfare, and sports associations operate with little interference from authorities. During 2016, the Economy Ministry counted as active 1,971 local NGOs and 279 international NGOs, although periodically organizations are deregistered when the ministry considers them noncompliant with reporting requirements. Threats and violence by the Taliban and other actors, especially a pattern of kidnappings, have curbed the activities of many NGOs and have hampered recruitment of foreign aid workers.
Despite broad constitutional protections for workers, labor rights are not well defined, and currently no effective enforcement or dispute-resolution mechanisms are in place.
The judicial system operates haphazardly, and justice in many places is administered on the basis of a mixture of legal codes by inadequately trained judges. Corruption in the judiciary is extensive, with judges and lawyers often subject to threats and bribes from local leaders or armed groups. Informal justice systems, employing variants of both customary law and Sharia (Islamic law), are widely used to arbitrate disputes, especially in rural areas. The Taliban have installed their own judiciary in areas they control, but also conduct summary executions.
In April 2016, the parliament approved appointment of a new attorney general who has a strong track record of commitment to legality and human rights. However, he faces massive challenges in promoting the rule of law.
Prosecutions and trials suffer from a number of weaknesses, including lack of proper representation, excess reliance on uncorroborated witness testimony, lack of reliable forensics evidence, arbitrary decision-making, and failure to publish court decisions. Furthermore, there is a well-ensconced culture of impunity for the country’s political and military power brokers. In December 2016, the former governor of Jowzjan Province accused First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum of having him detained and assaulted, and at year’s end it was unclear whether the attorney general could compel the vice president to cooperate with an investigation.
The police force is heavily militarized and primarily focused on its role as a first line of defense against insurgents in administrative centers. There are high levels of corruption and complicity in organized crime among police, particularly near key smuggling routes. The torture of detainees by Afghan police, military, and intelligence services reportedly remains common. Government-aligned strongmen and powerful figures within the security forces operate illegal detention centers.
The conflict in Afghanistan continued at a high intensity in 2016, with a heavy toll on civilians. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 11,418 conflict-related civilian casualties in 2016 (3,498 deaths and 7,920 injuries), almost the same level as had occurred in 2015. UNAMA attributed 61 percent of the casualties to the Taliban and other insurgents and 24 percent to Afghan security and other progovernment forces. The figures reveal a trend towards the Afghan national security forces causing an increased proportion of civilian casualties, mainly from aerial and ground-based bombardment. During the year, the Taliban expanded their campaign of attacks on provincial centers and their control of rural areas. They sustained a campaign of high-profile suicide bombings and complex attacks against civilian targets, such as restaurants and hotels, and targets where civilian casualties could be anticipated, such as military convoys moving through populated urban areas. The local branch of the Islamic State faced pressure from both the government and Taliban, but managed to hold onto an enclave in eastern Nangarhar Province. Although the Taliban were responsible for most insurgent violence, the Islamic State fighters also took responsibility for a string of attacks, mostly targeting Shia civilians.
Historically, Afghanistan has been home to small communities of Hindus and Sikhs, though in 2016 there were thought to be fewer than 7,000 Hindus and Sikhs in the country compared to hundreds of thousands in the 1970s. Despite some legal protections, these religious minorities remain subject to harassment and discrimination, including in employment and education. In December 2016, unknown gunmen shot and killed a Sikh community leader in Kunduz.
There is no legal protection for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people, who face societal disapproval and abuse by police. Same-sex sexual activity is considered illegal under the penal code and Sharia.
The government does not restrict the right of travel within the country or abroad, though insecurity and other obstacles hamper freedom of movement in practice. In 2016, Afghanistan was embroiled in a multidimensional crisis of forced migration. First, the conflict at home continued to displace Afghans within the country, and more than 580,000 people newly displaced during the year brought the cumulative total of internally displaced people to 1.6 million. Secondly, Afghans remained the second largest group of migrants or refugees arriving in southern Europe, with some 42,000 Afghans arriving by sea in the first eleven months of the year. However, the biggest new development concerned Afghans returning to the country. In the wake of Pakistan’s campaign of harassment against Afghans during the summer of 2016 and Pakistani authorities’ foot-dragging over the extension of refugee documentation, there was a surge in Afghans returning to the country from Pakistan. Many of the arrivals had not previously planned to leave Pakistan and were ill-prepared for the move. European countries also started to deport Afghan asylum seekers whose applications were rejected, and the European Union countries effectively made their renewed aid commitments to Afghanistan conditional on the government cooperating with the deportations. An estimated 700,000 returnees, most of them from Pakistan, crossed into Afghanistan during 2016. The mass movements, happening in conditions of conflict, put severe strain on public infrastructure.
Citizens are formally free to own property, buy and sell land, and establish businesses. There has also been a trend away from government monopolies. Economic freedoms, however, are constrained by patronage, corruption, and the dominant economic role of a narrow, politically connected elite. Over the past decade the most profitable activities available to Afghans have been government and defense contracting, narcotics trafficking, and property and minerals development. Investors in all of these sectors have depended on connections to those in power. A combination of harassment, extortion, and arbitrary taxation make for a highly unfavorable business climate for any investor hoping to operate within the law.
Although women have formal rights to education and employment, and some participate in public life, discrimination and domestic violence remain pervasive, with the latter often going unreported because of social acceptance of the practice. Women’s choices regarding marriage and divorce remain circumscribed by custom and discriminatory laws. On some issues, customary practices withhold even rights that are guaranteed to women by Sharia. The forced marriage of young girls to older men or widows to their husbands’ male relations is a problem, and many girls continue to be married before the legal age of 16. The courts and the detention system have been used to enforce social control of women, for example by jailing those who defy their families’ wishes regarding marriage.
Women in urban areas typically enjoy greater access to education and formal employment, and are better able to participate in national politics. Women accounted for about 16 percent of the candidates in the 2010 parliamentary elections, and roughly 41 percent of registered voters were women; 69 female candidates were elected. While no women candidates ran in the 2014 presidential election, 273 women ran for provincial council seats, securing 97 of them. Female electoral participation has been limited by threats, harassment, and social restrictions on traveling alone and appearing in public.
Most victims of human trafficking in Afghanistan are children trafficked internally to work in various industries, become domestic servants, settle debts, or be subjected to commercial sexual exploitation. Victims of trafficking are frequently prosecuted for moral crimes.