Background Briefing

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II. Background

The Bonn Process

Afghanistan’s current political process is based on the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, an accord signed by representatives of the militia forces who fought with the U.S.-led coalition against the Taliban, representatives of the former King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, and representatives of various other exiled Afghan groups.  The agreement brought Hamid Karzai to power as the first interim leader of Afghanistan.  Under the provisions of the agreement, an Emergency Loya Jirga (grand council) met in June 2002 to pick a two year transitional government.  At that meeting, Hamid Karzai was chosen as President of Afghanistan.  A Constitutional Loya Jirga was then convened in December 2003 to approve a new constitution and governmental structure. 

According to the Bonn plan, democratic elections—for national and local governmental offices—were then supposed to occur in June 2004.  The Bonn Agreement also specified, among other things, that military forces occupying Kabul city as of December 2001 had to withdraw from the city, and that forces belonging to each of the militias would either disarm or unify under the command of the head of the government, President Hamid Karzai.

Over the last two-and-a-half years there has been progress in several areas.  The Afghan government has gradually re-built some of the apparatus of state power in Kabul.  Development efforts have begun in provinces outside of Kabul, including construction of roads, schools, and hospitals, contributing to the growth of Afghanistan’s economy.  And although the majority of school age girls remain without adequate educational opportunities, millions of girls have returned to school, and universities are functioning.  Training has begun of a new Afghan army and central police force.  An Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, called for by the Bonn Agreement, was founded and has begun to expand its activities.  Limited legal reform processes and training of judges and lawyers have begun.

But Afghanistan’s political development has remained stagnant, as many of the Bonn Agreement’s most important provisions have been either forgotten or ignored.  Militia forces occupying Kabul were never withdrawn from the city, no significant disarmament of militia forces nationwide has taken place (demobilization has been reduced to a goal of less than 40 percent, which will not come close to being met), and many militia leaders have retained their autonomous leadership over what are essentially private armies.  Many of the country’s various militia forces have fortified their strength.  The national Loya Jirgas were held, and a constitution approved, but both processes were marked by wide-spread threats and political repression by warlord factions, as Human Rights Watch has documented in past reports.1 

Factions and local autonomy

Worse still, Afghanistan’s militias remain highly factionalized and autonomous.  Officially, all existing military forces are unified under and responsible to the central government, but in reality most forces are controlled by various regional commanders.  Most sub-commanders around the country are loyal first to other regional factional leaders, who then maintain varying degrees of overall loyalty to Karzai. 

The minister of defense, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, is himself a factional leader—the main commander of the Jamiat-e Islami faction and the allied Shura-e Nazar—and has resisted many efforts to replace Jamiat and Shura-e Nazar commanders whom he appointed to high-level positions in the ministry.2  (Because of General Fahim’s continuing recalcitrance, the concept of a unified military under Karzai’s command remains impossible, conceptually and in practice.)  

Recently, President Karzai resisted choosing Fahim to run as his vice-presidential candidate in the upcoming election, although under pressure from Jamiat to do so.  But Fahim and other commanders like him remain strong, and their acquiescence to Karzai’s rule seems based more on comity than obedience. 

Over the last two-and-a-half years, many of President Karzai’s orders have been defied or ignored by commanders, including General Fahim.  In most provinces, local military commanders or factional leaders act autonomously as de facto government leaders.  Most of them have little tolerance for political freedoms, and use their localized control of army and police to intimidate opponents. 

There are occasionally shifts in local power—some of them quite important.  For instance, Ismail Khan, the commander and governor of western city of Herat, was fired in September 2004 by President Karzai.  And progress has been made in some areas on cantonment of heavy weapons held by factional forces.  But most areas in Afghanistan remain firmly under warlord rule.  Disarmament efforts have essentially failed in most parts of the county.

In a few small areas in the south and southeast, where military operations continue, there is essentially no governmental structure at all.  A few areas in Zabul and Kunar are essentially under the control of Taliban and insurgent forces.

In sum, Afghanistan today resembles more a loose confederation of small fiefdoms than a unified sovereign nation.  Specific conditions in each region and province vary, but the overarching characteristic across the country is the same: de facto control of local governance lies with militarized faction leaders.

Afghanistan’s poor security situation is often blamed entirely on the Taliban and other insurgent forces, although in reality many districts are insecure because of violence and instability caused by factions ostensibly affiliated with the government. 

For instance, factional violence between rival warlord groups led to the suspension of U.N. and NGO humanitarian operations in Herat in September, and ongoing factional rivalries continue to impede aid delivery and development in several provinces in the north and west of the country.

Moreover, security personnel in Kabul now suspect that the June 2 killing of five aid workers with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders), which was first thought to be carried out by Taliban forces, was in fact carried out by a local autonomous militia.3  The killings led to MSF’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan in late July, a momentous decision given that MSF worked in Afghanistan through the worst violence of the early 1990’s. 

In a public statement in late July, MSF said: “Although government officials have presented MSF with credible evidence that local commanders conducted the attack, they have neither detained nor publicly called for their arrest.  The lack of government response to the killings represents a failure of responsibility and an inadequate commitment to the safety of aid workers on its soil.”4

The main military factions around Afghanistan include:

  • Jamiat-e Islami-yi Afghanistan (hereafter “Jamiat”)/Shura-e Nazar/Nehzat-e Melli
  • Ittihad-i Islami Bara-yi Azadi Afghanistan (hereafter “Ittihad”)/Daw’at-e Islami
  • Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-yi Afghanistan (hereafter “Wahdat”)
  • Junbish-e Milli-yi Islami-yi Afghanistan (hereafter “Junbish”)
  • Harakat-e Islami-yi Afghanistan (hereafter “Harakat”)
  • Durrani Pashtun tribal militias, based in and around Kandahar
  • Forces based in and around Herat previously loyal to Ismail Khan (in flux)
  • Taliban and Hezb-e Islami insurgent forces

Taken together, these factions control the majority of Afghanistan outside of Kabul.  The Afghan National Army—a small set of divisions newly trained and under Karzai’s control—have been deployed to some areas, including the cities of Jalalabad, Khost, Gardez, and Herat, but are in most cases they are outnumbered by local factional forces.

(Note:  This list is not exhaustive: these are Afghanistan’s most powerful and largest military parties, but there are subdivisions among these factions, and several smaller factions are not noted here.  Some of the factions have registered as political parties, with new names, such as Nehzat-e Melli and Daw’at-e Islami.  A description of each of the above factions appears in Appendix A.)

The Presidential Candidates

The vast majority of the 18 presidential candidates on the October 9 ballot are not running on political party tickets—even those who are in fact linked with factions. 

Abdul Rashid Dostum, for instance, leader of the Junbish faction, is running for president as an independent, as are Mohammad Mohaqqiq, one of the main leaders of Wahdat, and Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, a deputy in Ittihad/Dawat-e Islami. 

Massouda Jilal, the sole woman candidate, is running as an independent, as are Homayoun Shah Assefy (the brother-in-law of former King Zahir Shah); Mahfooz Nedai, the former interim minister of Mines and Industries in President Karzai’s cabinet; and Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, a writer who was affiliated earlier with Jamiat.

Some of the “independent” presidential tickets are in fact mixed: President Karzai, listed as an independent, is running on a ticket with vice-presidential candidates Ahmed Zia Massoud, the brother of the assassinated leader of Jamiat/Shura-e Nazar, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and Karim Khalili, a senior leader in Wahdat.  Abdul Satar Sirat, a former official in Zahir Shah’s government and a representative at the Bonn Agreement talks, is running as an independent with Mohammad Amin Waqad, formerly a deputy of Hezb-e Islami (the party/faction of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) as first vice-president.

The candidates officially running on political party tickets are: Yunis Qanooni, a senior leader of Jamiat/Shura-e Nazar/Nehzat-e Melli, as a member of Nehzat-e Melli; Latif Pedram, as a member of Congreh-e Melli Afghanistan; Sayyid Ishaq Gilani, as a member of Nehzat Hambastegi Melli Afghanistan; and Ghulam Farooq Nijrabi, as a member of Istiqlal Afghanistan.  A complete list of presidential candidates is listed in Appendix B.

Continuing human rights problems and lack of protection

Most of the military factional forces in Afghanistan, listed above, are deeply involved in ongoing human rights abuses and criminal enterprises. 

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, and other human rights and humanitarian groups have documented these abuses in past reports.5  UNAMA and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees have also documented many of the same problems, although without publishing all of their findings in reports.

The list of documented violations is extensive.  Local military and police forces, even in Kabul, are involved in arbitrary arrests, kidnapping and extortion, and torture and extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects.  Outside of Kabul, commanders and their troops in many areas are implicated in widespread rape of women and girls, rape of boys, murder, illegal detention and forced displacement, and other specific abuses against women and children, including human trafficking and forced marriage.  In several areas, Human Rights Watch has documented how commanders and their troops have seized property from families and levied illegal per capita “taxes” (paid in cash or with food or goods) from local populations.  In some remote areas, there are no real governmental structures or activity, only abuse and criminal enterprises by factions: trafficking in opium, smuggling of duty-free goods into Pakistan, and smuggling of natural resources or antiquities exploited from government-owned land. 

In cities, militias are relatively less audacious, but abuses do occur—including extortion and harassment or sexual attacks against women and girls.  High-level commanders in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and other cities have been directly involved in property seizures and forced displacement. 

Women and girls bear some of the worst effects of these abuses. Conditions overall for women in Afghanistan are better than under the Taliban, but women and girls continue to face severe governmental and social discrimination.  Soldiers and police routinely harass women and girls, even in Kabul city.  Many women and girls are still afraid to remove the burqa, fearing harassment from factional forces.  And because soldiers are targeting women and girls, many are staying indoors, especially in rural areas; violence is making it difficult for them to attend school, go to work, or actively participate in the country’s reconstruction. The majority of school-age girls in Afghanistan are not enjoying adequate educational opportunities.

[1] “Afghanistan: Return of the Warlords,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, June 2002, at; “Afghanistan’s Bonn Agreement One Year Later: A Catalog of Missed Opportunities,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, December 2002, available at

[2] For more information on Jamiat-e Islami, Shura-e Nazar, and other factions, see Appendix A.

[3] Human Rights Watch interviews with U.N. and NGO security officials, Kabul, September 21, 2004; Human Rights Watch interview with security officials, Mazar-e Sharif, August 15, 2004.

[4] Médecins Sans Frontières, “MSF withdraws from Afghanistan following killing, threats and insecurity,” Press Release, July 30, 2004.

[5] See “‘Killing You is a Very Easy Thing For Us’: Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan,” A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 15, no. 5 (C), July 2003, available at; Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Annual Report 2003; Amnesty International, “‘No one listens to us and no one treats us as human beings’: justice denied to women,” October 2003 and “Out of sight, out of mind: the fate of the Afghan returnees,” June 2003.

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