Afghan women wait to receive winter relief assistance donated by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in the outskirts of Kabul on February 3, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

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Preparations for the end-2014 withdrawal of international combat troops continued in 2013, with international troops largely departed, sequestered in bases, and focused on the logistics of shipping military equipment out of the country. The Afghan army and police stepped forward to lead the fight against the Taliban and other insurgents, with mixed results.

The ability of Afghan security forces to hold government-held territory, let alone retake insurgent-controlled areas, is unclear, and security concerns for much of the population remain high. The United Nations recorded a 23 percent rise in civilian casualties for the first six months of 2013 compared to 2012, most caused by insurgents, with the Taliban explicitly targeting civilians they see as supporting the government. The security concerns are reflected in the fact that almost half of the 7,000 polling centers planned for the 2014 presidential election face serious threats.

There was continued instability and declining respect for human rights in the country over the past year. This was reflected in attacks on women’s rights, growing internal displacement and migration, and weakened efficacy of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). Impunity for abuses was the norm for government security forces and other armed groups. These problems raised concerns about the fairness of the upcoming presidential election.

Women’s Rights

With international interest in Afghanistan rapidly waning, opponents of women’s rights seized the opportunity to begin rolling back the progress made since the end of Taliban rule. A May parliamentary debate on the groundbreaking Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW Law), passed by presidential decree in 2009, was halted after 15 minutes after numerous lawmakers argued for the law’s repeal and spoke out against legal protections for women and girls. The law remains valid, but enforcement is weak. The EVAW debate heralded, and perhaps triggered, subsequent attacks and setbacks within the government during the year, including:

  • A call by Abdul Rahman Hotak, a new AIHRC commissioner, to repeal the EVAW Law;
  • A decision by parliament to reduce the 25 percent of seats set aside for women on Afghanistan’s 34 provincial councils;
  • A revision by the Ministry of Justice to the new criminal procedure code, adding a provision that bans family member testimony in criminal cases that makes it extremely difficult to prosecute domestic violence and child and forced marriage— and the law’s subsequent passage by the lower house of parliament;
  • The release from prison after just one year of the parents-in-law of Sahar Gul, the 13-year-old bride of their son whom they had starved and tortured for months. The in-laws had initially received a 10-year sentence.

A string of physical assaults in 2013 against high-profile women highlighted the danger to activists and women in public life. These included:

  • July 5: Former parliamentarian Noor Zia Atmar revealed that she was living in a battered women’s shelter due to attacks from her husband. She later confirmed that she was seeking asylum abroad.
  • August 7: Unknown attackers shot Rooh Gul, a parliamentarian in the upper house, as she travelled by road through Ghazni province. She and her husband survived, but her eight-year-old daughter and driver were killed.
  • September 4:  A self-described Taliban breakaway group dragged Sushmita Banerjee, an Indian woman married to an Afghan health worker, from her house in Paktika province, shot her repeatedly, and dumped her body outside a religious school.
  • September 16: Lieutenant Nigara, the highest ranking female police officer in Helmand province, was shot and killed on her way to work less than three months after the July 3 assassination of her predecessor, Lt. Islam Bibi.

Security Transition

Overall declining international interest in Afghanistan contributed to mounting fears among Afghans for the country’s future.  

Afghan security forces filled in many of the gaps left by departing international forces.  Some 400 Afghan security force members were killed each month during the 2013 “fighting season,” and attrition rates reached 50 percent in some units.

Preparations for the April 2014 presidential election were plagued with difficulties, with voter registration off to a slow start; delays in the adoption of necessary legislation; controversy over the membership of the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission; low rates of female voter registration; and concerns about the ability of Afghan security forces to provide adequate security on election day. 

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