Background Briefing

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I. Summary

In politics here today whatever the gunmen want ultimately happens. We don’t know what kind of democracy this is.
—Political organizer, Jalalabad, May 31, 2004

On October 9, 2004, Afghanistan will hold its first-ever national election.  Voters will choose a president for a five-year term.  The election could be prove to be a historic event for a country that has, over the last twenty-five years, suffered Soviet occupation, civil war, failed governance, severe repression of women, and the vicious rule of the Taliban.  The prospect of a future dictated by ballots, and not bullets and bombs, is a cause for great hope.  Taliban forces and other armed anti-government groups are still trying to disrupt the process by targeting election workers and election sites for attack, and some areas in the south and southeast remain highly unstable.  Still, election officials maintain that overall preparations are on track.  Afghan and international leaders are vowing that elections will be successful.

The reality, however, is more complex—and worrisome.  Parliamentary elections have been postponed until 2005 because of security concerns and logistical problems.  Major security and human rights problems persist, and seriously endanger the country’s future. 

Political repression by local strongmen is the principal problem.  Throughout the country, militarized political factions—militias and remnants of past Afghan military forces who came into power in the wake of the Taliban’s defeat—continue to cement their hold on political power at the local level, using force, threats, and corruption to stifle more legitimate political activity and dominate the election process.  Independent political organizers unaffiliated with factions or their militia forces are facing death threats and harassment and are struggling just to organize.  Some politically active Afghan men and women, potential leaders who would otherwise be eager to take part in the political life of their country, have instead already opted out of the process, or are very cautious in their activities, literally afraid for their lives.  Voters in many rural areas have already been told by warlords and regional commanders how to vote and, given the general political repression and unfamiliarity with democratic processes, are likely to obey.  Women, both as voters and as political actors, remain marginalized.

Political instability also persists, caused by ongoing conflicts between armed factions competing against each other for power, and the continuing insurgency against the government of President Hamid Karzai.  In some areas—like the western city of Herat—the political situation recently descended into violence, and still remains tenuous and unpredictable.  In other areas—like Zabul and Kunar province—whole districts are essentially war zones where U.S. and Afghan government forces engage in military operations against Taliban and other insurgent groups. 

Afghans in the south and southeast in particular are facing intimidation from Taliban and insurgent groups, who threaten residents not to take part in the elections, and continue to carry out attacks on the election process and engage militarily with U.S. and Afghan government troops.

While many observers inside and outside Afghanistan continue to focus on the Taliban as the main threat to human rights and political development, in most parts of the country Afghans told Human Rights Watch that they are primarily afraid of the local factional leaders and military commanders—not the Taliban insurgency.  Far from a Taliban problem, most Afghans tell us that their main fear is of jangsalaran—the Dari and Pashto word for “warlords.”  They say that Afghanistan has a warlord problem—a problem with military factions dominating government and national institutions, including local governments and the army, police, and intelligence services.

And as many Afghans say, this warlord problem is ultimately a human rights problem.  Almost all of the warlord factions are implicated in past and ongoing human rights abuses and political repression, much of which Human Rights Watch has documented in previous reports.

This report, based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch from June through September 2004, details the scope of this ongoing human rights problem in the context of the October 9 election.  It outlines specific intimidation tactics used by warlord factions to undermine the organization of political groups, and describes how some presidential and vice-presidential candidates have already faced threats and other harassment.  The report shows a pattern of threats made against Afghan journalists and potential candidates for next year’s parliamentary and local elections.  It concludes that voters in many rural areas have not received adequate information or education about their political rights and either do not understand or have faith in the secrecy of their ballots, making it likely that factional leaders will be able to control how they vote.

The report also explains how factions have used force and deception to collect thousands of voting cards from civilians to use in nominating political candidates, including presidential candidates.  The tally of registered voters in Afghanistan, over 10.5 million in an overall population of 26 million, is now believed to be significantly inaccurate, the result of widespread multiple registration by voters.  As explained here, pronouncements by Afghan and international officials boasting that 40 percent of registered voters are women ignores the likelihood that tens of thousands of women have been registered more than once (some believing their voting card would entitle them to benefits or food rations), and masks regional variation in the figures, including data from some southern provinces showing that less than 10 percent of those registered are women.  Several election officials in Kabul acknowledged to Human Rights Watch in late September that the number of Afghans expected to vote on October 9 could range as low as 5 to 7 million.

In summary, the report describes how the general behavior and continuing power of various armed factions have created an environment of fear in Afghanistan, an atmosphere of political anxiety in which many Afghans—voters, party organizers, journalists, women’s activists, even government officials—are afraid to speak openly and are censoring themselves.

Frustrated Hopes

There is a sense of disappointment running through Afghanistan today.  Many Afghans are sick of warlord rule and yearn for the rule of law.  They are tired of government positions being held by abusive warlords, and they are insulted that the international community appears to think that these military commanders are innocuous, that they have “reformed,” or that they are otherwise acceptable.  Most Afghans want the warlords out of power, and are angry that Afghanistan’s political processes so far—including two Loya Jirgas (grand councils) in 2002 and 2003—have simply been legitimizing their influence.

Credible elections are seen by many Afghans as the way to transform the country from a loose set of warlord-led fiefdoms into a functioning nation with a legitimate civilian government that protects citizens’ human rights.  In this sense, elections are seen not only as a goal in Afghanistan—a good in and of itself—but also a means of addressing human rights issues and warlordism. 

The question is whether the presidential election in 2004 (and local and parliamentary elections in 2005) will move the country closer towards that goal.  As this report shows, it is likely it will not.  Most signs suggest that warlordism and factional dominance will only increase.

A Mistaken Sense of Complacency

Relief is not on the way.  Many politically active Afghans, including presidential candidates, say they feel unprotected—and are scared.  Afghanistan is still without an adequately staffed professional and independent police force, and the justice system barely functions.  The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and various Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), international joint military-civilian teams operated by various nations in Afghanistan, have assisted in some protection efforts but have been unable to bring an overall sense of improved security across the country.  The main and continuing reason for their weakness has been the inadequate number of troops made available to their operations by NATO member nations. Amazingly, because of the inadequate provision of international forces, current security plans for the presidential election include the use of deputized warlord or factional forces to guard polling stations—the very people Afghans say they’re most afraid of. 

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), along with several international officials in other Kabul offices, have been working hard to combat the ongoing problems, and have intervened to support numerous vulnerable persons and groups, especially in Kabul.  But international officials and agencies alone are not in a position to protect the majority of politically active Afghans.  Until the Afghan government can provide security throughout the country, the need for sufficient international security forces will remain.

The government of President Hamid Karzai has made efforts to address political repression and has made some important moves to sideline abusive commanders, most notably by removing Ismail Khan as governor of Herat in September and by dropping Defense Minister Fahim as his vice-presidential candidate.  Karzai’s office has also intervened in several cases to prevent specific abuses.  But President Karzai’s authority over many areas outside of Kabul is still relatively weak––because of security fears he has been unable to campaign and is a virtual prisoner of the presidential palace––and his office is unable to protect vulnerable persons in many areas outside of Kabul.  And the Karzai government is itself implicated in some of the abuses, particularly in the south of the country, and may be benefiting politically from repression by others in other areas.

Meanwhile, many in the international community, including U.S. officials closely involved with situation in Afghanistan, appear to be complacent.  Many falsely assume that democracy is now on the horizon.  But democracy’s substance––voters and candidates taking part in an electoral process free of violence and threats, against a backdrop of a system of checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and a free press—is as elusive as ever.  Almost three years have passed since the 2001 Bonn Agreement installed the first post-Taliban government, and little progress has been made in laying the foundation for a functioning democratic state.

Poor Planning and Avoidable Delays

It is not surprising that problems persist.  Democratic institutions must be developed where few previously existed.  Just three years ago, Afghanistan was ruled by one of the cruelest and most incompetent governments of the modern age.  The new government is being built in a midst of armed conflict, massive lack of education, and stark poverty.  Few in the country have a clear notion of what democracy, the rule of law, or human rights mean in practice. 

Ongoing insecurity, poor strategy-making, and poor planning have only made matters worse.  The overall democratization process has repeatedly stumbled over the last two years.  The constitutional Loya Jirga was postponed for several months during 2003, for poorly explained reasons, and the scheduling of the presidential, parliamentary, and local elections in Afghanistan was a repeated source of confusion over the last year.  National elections (joint elections for president, parliament, and local offices) were postponed—twice—and then parliamentary and local elections were moved to 2005. 

These delays, which were announced in stages in early 2004 after weeks and months of unconfirmed rumor, were justified publicly due to ongoing logistical problems, funding shortfalls, delays in implementing necessary legislation, and continuing attacks by the Taliban on election workers and registration sites.  But the core reason for delay was that the overall security situation in Afghanistan, including in areas under government control, is still not conducive to conducting free and fair elections. 

The Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), a joint U.N. and Afghan government body appointed by President Karzai to oversee and administer elections, concluded in July 2004 that neither the Afghan government nor its international partners can guarantee the security of the many candidates expected to run in parliamentary and local elections this year.  The JEMB, with President Karzai’s approval, decided on a compromise for 2004: a presidential election in October, with its smaller number of candidates, and parliamentary elections next year.

Political Parties and the Role of Warlords

Afghans clearly hunger to take part in the electoral process.  Eighteen candidates have successfully registered to run for president, including several independent candidates not aligned with any military factions.  To date, almost 70 political parties have applied to register with the government.  At least 40 have successfully registered so far. 

The parties vary in scope of organization, membership characteristics, and links to different factions or governmental officials:  Some are comprised of former government officials from pre-1992 governments, including the Soviet-supported governments of Najibullah and Babrak Karmal, the government of Daoud Khan (1973-1978) and even the government of the former King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah.  Some are reincarnations of political parties from the 1960s-1980s which never held any significant political power, including various socialist and communist groups, secularist groups, and various Islamist groups.  Some parties are entirely new and are headed by youth leaders. 

But much of Afghanistan’s political activity is being dominated by the warlord factions.  There are numerous parties—the most powerful ones in fact—which are merely proxies for the various military factions, or sub-factions within them.  Afghanistan’s registration law prohibits parties from maintaining their own private militias, but since most militia forces have an official status as divisions or battalions under the control of the Ministry of Defense, faction “parties” can disingenuously claim that they have no private forces.  The 10th Army Division, for instance—official units under the control of the Kabul government—are actually factional forces controlled by the Ittihad-e Islami faction (“Ittihad”), which in turn is controlled by the powerful faction leader Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. 

Moreover, some factions changed their party names for registration purposes, possibly to avoid running afoul of the law.  Most members of Jamiat-e Islami (Jamiat), for instance, a mujahidin military force which fought against the Soviet occupation, are now organized as the political party Nehzat-e Melli.  Ittihad, a Pashtun armed faction, is now known as Daw’at-e Islami.  (For more information on the different factions, see Appendix A.)  Parties which change their name can then disingenuously claim that they have no official link with any military faction, and claim to be independent.

To date, the political party registration office in the Afghan government has not disqualified any party on the grounds that it maintains a private militia or is linked with one.  Nor have any presidential candidates been disqualified for serving as de facto militia leaders, although some candidates who applied to be registered were disqualified on technical grounds (for instance, not having the requisite 10,000 signatures for a nomination).  It would not have been difficult technically for the JEMB to make factual findings that some candidates, like General Dostum, Yunis Qanooni, Mohammad Mohaqqiq, and Karim Khalali, are de facto leaders of military forces, or are linked with such forces.  The JEMB received numerous complaints about these candidates, including complaints about their links to militias.  But political concerns (if not outright fear of the candidates on the part of JEMB officials) seem to have inhibited them.


The Afghan government and its international partners need to act fast.  Although the current election, which is not hotly contested, may pass without a serious political crisis, this should not mask the fact that the country remains in a human rights crisis.  With far more heated parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, a serious political crisis that greatly exacerbates the already critical human rights situation is a serious possibility in coming months.  And it is difficult to overemphasize just how major a crisis it could be, as military factions compete for official positions, power, and legitimacy (not to mention parliamentary immunity).  Afghanistan’s diverse factions, who fought a bloody civil war in the early 1990s, are by no means easy allies of each other.  This continuing military factionalism, if unchecked in coming years, could spark a new civil conflict in Afghanistan, and put at risk all of the gains and opportunities presented by the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban in late 2001. 

To address these problems, Human Rights Watch urges President Karzai and the Afghan government to continue to step up efforts to sideline abusive commanders and refrain from deal-making that would further entrench warlord rule.  The government must act immediately on reports of violence, threats, or intimidation against politically active Afghans or voters and denounce abusers.  It must offer full support to the work of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the only Afghan body currently capable of addressing serious human rights abuses.

The United States should clarify its strategy in Afghanistan and make human rights protection, which will enable democratization and nation-building, a primary goal of U.S. efforts.  The current strategy of supporting both the central government and regional and local warlords who resist accountability to Kabul, undermines the creation of democratic institutions and the rule of law.  The United States must stop working with and supporting abusive warlords.  The U.S. and other involved states should redouble efforts to assist the national government with militia disarmament, the development of an effective and rights-respecting national army and police force, while working to protect independent political actors.  They must speak out against violence, threats, and intimidation against politically active Afghans and voters and denounce those responsible. 

The United States, NATO member states and concerned governments, should increase cooperation with the ISAF and work to expand troop levels to ensure security throughout Afghanistan.  Provincial Reconstruction Teams, where they are used in lieu of ISAF troops, should be given clearer mandates to assist with disarmament efforts and protection of vulnerable political actors and groups.

Donor nations should increase support for human rights and democratization promotion.  This should be aimed at helping the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) dramatically increase its staffing levels for human rights monitoring and protection and political affairs monitoring.  It should also support the work of the AIHRC in monitoring Afghanistan’s human rights situation.

Donors should also prioritize additional funding for the JEMB and UNAMA to ensure they have the needed resources to administer 2005 elections.  Donor nations should encourage UNAMA to facilitate a central independent monitoring body charged with observing the 2005 elections, and earmark funding for that body.

A full set of recommendations is listed in the Recommendations section

Note: Methodology

This briefing paper is based on over 150 interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch in June through September 2004 in Nangahar, Paktia, Mazar-e Sharif, Kandahar and Kabul, and telephone interviews with sources in several other areas including Kunduz and Herat.  Those interviewed included political organizers, candidates, civil society leaders, women’s rights activists, human rights monitors, humanitarian workers, journalists, editors, doctors, school teachers, university faculty, and local and national government officials, as well as international officials, including diplomatic staff and officials and staff at UNAMA, UNHCR, and various international NGOs.  With a few exceptions, the Afghans interviewed indicated that they did not want their names to be used in conjunction with their testimony.  Many international officials interviewed also preferred not to be identified.  Accordingly, this report does not quote those sources by name, and in most cases uses initials which do not correspond to actual names.

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