The Future of Afghanistan: Development Progress and Prospects after 2014

Written evidence submitted by Human Rights Watch

The Human Rights Situation in Afghanistan and the Role of International Partners

1. The human rights situation in Afghanistan is poor, with the potential to become significantly worse in the coming years, depending on security and political developments in the country. The international community, including the United Kingdom, has responsibility and influence regarding how the next few years in Afghanistan will evolve and to what extent human rights will – or will not – be protected.

2. In the context of the drawdown of international troops, Afghanistan’s international partners have declining influence over the Afghan government. But there has been an unhelpful tendency among partner governments to overplay this and claim an inability to influence the human rights situation when in fact they have simply chosen not to try. The reality is that Afghanistan is deeply dependent on international support to fund Afghan security forces as well as all other government services. Barring some major breakdown in the overall situation, Afghanistan’s current partner nations will continue to be providing a very large proportion of Afghanistan’s annual budget. This type of large-scale assistance creates political influence, and Afghanistan’s partners should be more assertive about using this influence to promote respect for human rights.

3. The Afghan government has done far too little to support women’s rights. President Hamid Karzai’s recent public statement in support of a communication from the Ulema Council that instructed that women should not travel unchaperoned or mix with men during education, work or in public raised new fears that his commitment to women’s rights is shaky and wavering. Attacks and threats against women and girls continue, frequently focusing on women in public life, school girls, and the staff of girls’ schools. The incarceration of women and girls for "moral crimes" such as "running away" from home-even when doing so is not prohibited by statutory law-also continues to be a major concern, with an estimated half of the approximately 700 women and girls in jail and prison facing such charges.

4. The 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was an important step, but two years later, the law remains almost entirely unenforced. Law enforcement officials ignore the law and there are nowhere near enough services to assist women fleeing violence and abuse. Afghanistan at present has 14 shelters, each able to house an average of around 20 to 25 women and their children. This does not meet even a small fraction of the need in a country where an estimated 70 to 80 percent of marriages are forced and 87 percent of women face at least one form of physical, sexual, or psychological violence or forced marriage in their lifetimes.

5. Armed conflict with the Taliban and other insurgent groups escalated in 2011. The Afghan NGO Security Office (ANSO) reported that opposition attacks increased to 40 a day in the first six months of the year, up 119 percent since 2009 and 42 percent since 2010. ANSO also reported a 73 percent increase since 2010 in attacks against aid workers, which included a fatal mob attack-sparked by the burning of the Quran by an American pastor in Florida-against a United Nations office in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Insurgent attacks reached previously secure areas including Parwan and Bamiyan as the war spread to many new parts of the country.

6. 2011 was the worst year for civilian casualties since 2001. Rising civilian casualties, increased use of "night raids" by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and abuses by insurgents and government-backed militias have widened the impact of the war on ordinary Afghans. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recording 1,462 conflict-related civilian deaths in the first six months of the year, a 15 percent increase since 2010. Some 80 percent were attributed to anti-government forces, most commonly caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Most IEDs that the ISAF encounters are victim-activated devices detonated by pressure plates, effectively antipersonnel landmines, which the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty-to which Afghanistan is a party-prohibits.

7. A campaign of assassinations of public figures by the Taliban in the north and the south seeks to destabilize the government. Prominent figures killed included the mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haidar Hameedi; a northern police commander, Gen. Daud Daud; and President Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, a key southern powerbroker. Shifting power structures have led to the appointment of individuals implicated in serious human rights abuses, including Matiullah Khan as Uruzgan police chief and Abdur Rezaq Razziq as Kandahar police chief. The Taliban and other insurgent groups continue to target schools, especially those for girls. The Taliban also use children, some as young as eight, as suicide bombers.

8. The NATO mission aimed to train a 134,000-strong police force and 171,600 soldiers by October 2011 to replace foreign forces. But the effort faces serious challenges, including attrition, insurgent infiltration, and illiteracy and substance abuse among recruits. In multiple incidents, trainees attacked and killed their international mentors. One in seven Afghan soldiers, a total of 24,000, deserted in the first six months of 2011, twice as many as in 2010.There are concerns that the build-up of the armed forces is moving too fast for necessary training and vetting, and it is increasingly clear that the size of the force will be financially unsustainable.

9. In 2011 support grew within the government and with its international partners for a negotiated peace agreement with the Taliban, given waning international willingness to continue combat operations. The possibility of an agreement raised fears (and, reportedly, re-arming) among non-Pashtun communities, who are concerned about an alliance between the government and the Taliban. It also renewed grave concerns that human rights, especially women’s rights, would be bargained away in the negotiation process.

10. Political stability has been seriously undermined by recent events including the political crisis following parliamentary elections and last year’s panic caused by the near-collapse of the country’s largest private bank, Kabul Bank. Flawed parliamentary elections in September 2010 led to fallout that, in 2011, threatened to seriously destabilize the country. Following the certification of election results by the Independent Election Commission (IEC), President Karzai took the unprecedented step of creating a special court to review the results. After street protests in Kabul and eight months during which parliament was immobilized by uncertainty, the special court disqualified 62 members of parliament out of 249 seats. A compromise in September 2011 resulted in nine members of parliament being removed, but these events left an already weak Parliament even more unable to provide a balance of powers.

11. The Afghan government continues to give free rein to well-known warlords and human rights abusers as well as corrupt politicians and businesspeople, further eroding public support. In an effort to combat insurgency the Afghan government continues to arm and provide money, with little oversight, to militias in the north that have been implicated in killings, rape, and forcible collection of illegal taxes. As part of its exit strategy, the United States is backing "Afghan Local Police" (ALP), village-based defense forces trained and mentored primarily by US Special Forces, which have been created since 2010 in parts of the country with limited police and military presence. In its first year ALP units were implicated-with few consequences for perpetrators-in killings, abductions, illegal raids, and beatings, raising serious questions about government and international efforts to vet, train, and hold these forces accountable.

12. The government has done far too little to address longstanding torture and abuse in prisons. Torture and abuse of detainees in Afghan jails in 2011 led the ISAF to temporarily suspend the transfer of prisoners in eight provinces. Abuses in these jails documented by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan include beatings, application of electric shock, threats of sexual assault, stress positions, removal of toenails, twisting and wrenching of genitals, and hanging detainees by their wrists. Inadequate due process protections for detainees held within the parallel US-administered system and for those prosecuted under Afghan law following US detention also continue to be a serious concern. The recent agreement by the US to transfer US-controlled detention facilities at Parwan (Bagram) to the Afghan government raises new concerns about abuse of transferred prisoners.

13. Afghanistan’s justice system remains weak and compromised, and a large proportion of the population relies instead on traditional justice mechanisms, and sometimes Taliban courts, for dispute resolution. Human rights abuses are endemic within the traditional justice system, with many practices persisting despite being outlawed. For example baad, where a family gives a girl to another family as compensation for a wrong, continues even though it is banned by the 2009 Law on Elimination of Violence against Women.

14. Prison overcrowding is extreme and increasing at an alarming rate, with the number of prisoners increasing from 600 in 2001 to 19,000 in 2011. Following the escape of 476 prisoners from Sarposa Prison in Kandahar, the government ordered the transfer of responsibility for prisons from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Interior, despite international concerns that doing so would increase the likelihood of abusive interrogation and lead to gaps in training, management, and oversight.

15. For many international actors, there is a desire to end involvement in Afghanistan’s long armed conflict. The demands of human rights advocates that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban not imperil human rights, especially women’s rights, have been met by bland international assurances that any agreement would require the Taliban to commit to respecting the constitution. Such promises are of little use when many in Afghanistan, both government and insurgent supporters, interpret the constitution as elevating religious principles over international human rights obligations. The Taliban has in practice shown no willingness to respect international human rights laws and norms.

16. Internationally supported efforts to promote human rights, civil society, education, rule of law, governance, and access to health care are also threatened by declining international aid. Aid budgets are expected to decline precipitously in 2012. The looming date of 2014 for withdrawal of most international troops-which is advancing against a backdrop of rising civilian casualties particularly from insurgent attacks, abuses by armed groups, and persistent human rights violations-begs the question of exactly what kind of Afghanistan the troops will be leaving behind.

The Role of the UK in Afghanistan

17. The UK is one of the more influential partner nations in Afghanistan, after the US. In addition to the scale of UK military involvement, there has also been a significant aid commitment. The level of UK political engagement, including on sensitive issues such as narcotics and corruption, has meant that the UK has emerged as a more influential player than some other donors with similar levels of financial commitment. UK embassy and DFID staff in Kabul in general enjoy a reputation for being relatively informed and active, although the strengths of the UK staff are sometimes undermined by the short tours and the fact that such a large proportion of staff are junior and often on their first overseas posting.

18. As the UK has handed over many of its military duties in Helmand province to the US, and retreated at least somewhat from its role as "lead nation" on counter-narcotics, there may be a need or opportunity for the UK to redefine its strategic priorities in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch would propose a strengthened focus on assistance to women.

The Impact of the Military Drawdown

19. There is increasing fatigue among Afghans with the international military presence, created in part by incidents such as the video of US soldiers urinating on the corpses of anti-government fighters, the burning of copies of the Quran at Bagram, and the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier at night in Kandahar province. While all of these incidents involved US soldiers, and there is specific anti-US sentiment in Afghanistan as a result, they also contribute to broader views about foreign military and foreigners in general. The continued toll of civilian casualties caused by both international forces and insurgent forces also contribute to fatigue among Afghans regarding the war.

20. At the same time, however, the military drawdown is causing anxiety in Afghanistan. Afghans are keenly aware that military intervention is only one of three types of foreign involvement in Afghanistan – the other two forms of involvement being political engagement and aid programmes. The military, political and humanitarian portfolios are related but separate. Whether or not Afghans want the US military to leave – and there is a wide range of opinions on this – most Afghans probably do not want an end to the other two forms of international involvement: political engagement and humanitarian aid. Many Afghan citizens appreciate the gains in education, economic development, jobs, maternal and infant mortality, a flourishing media, and a thriving private sector. There have been many mistakes related to aid programmes in Afghanistan. But while there are many lessons to be learned from what efforts have not succeeded, international support has played a crucial role in improving the lives of many Afghans.

21. Many Afghans also realize that international pressure is vital to sustaining human rights gains. There have been human rights improvements in Afghanistan over the last 10 years, yet the overall rights situation remains precarious. Pressure to reach a peace deal or just a de facto compromise with the Taliban as international forces depart could further endanger the rights of ordinary Afghans, especially women. Afghan women were reminded of how tenuous their progress is when President Karzai in March defended new guidelines instructing women not to travel without a chaperone or mix with men in the course of work or education or in public.

22. In the rush to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the concept of making a long-term non-military commitment to Afghanistan risks being lost. If the international community pulls back on its aid funds and political engagement in Afghanistan, this could further undermine human rights for all Afghans. Fewer girls – and boys – will learn to read. More babies and mothers will die. Afghan women will be left to fight for their rights the best they can without Afghan leaders needing to worry that the world is watching.

23. The UK and other countries partnering with Afghanistan should act immediately to clarify what support will be provided to Afghanistan in the years to come for essential services such as education and health care, and should reaffirm their commitment to providing political support to human rights activists and women’s rights activists in Afghanistan. Quietly continuing to provide support is not sufficient in the current environment where perceptions alone are enough to prompt Afghan government officials to feel that there are declining costs for betraying human rights commitments and competing priorities that are more important. In this context, Human Rights Watch is calling on all of Afghanistan’s partners to jointly launch a new partnership in support of Afghan women over the coming years.

Refocusing Aid to Afghanistan

24. Afghanistan has, in recent years, received high levels of aid and other forms of international assistance. While it is understandable that these levels of assistance will decline over time, the process of reducing aid needs to be done in a thoughtful and strategic manner. The UK and other donors that are reducing aid to Afghanistan should do so through a planning process that sets priorities and seeks, to the greatest extent possible, to sustain the impact of aid already invested. Crude approaches, such as cutting all program budgets by a certain percentage each year, should be avoided at all cost.

25. In assessing which programmes to continue supporting, human rights should be a guiding principle. The UK and other donors should protect aid efforts that are most directly focused on key human rights issues and are effectively promoting human rights. Such an analysis should also give priority to the rights of women. The UK should back away from infrastructure projects, which are costly, hard to oversee, and likely to suffer from lack of resources for operating costs and maintenance. Instead, the priority should be developing and maintaining human resources in key sectors, first among those being education and health care.

26. There are a number of services that are essential for women’s rights that need to be protected. These include funding for shelters for women fleeing abuse, legal services for women (including on family law issues), and support for women’s rights organizations. The broader legal aid structures that have been developed since 2001 are also of critical importance.

27. Reports of corruption and incompetence by the Afghan government have undermined support for aid. While action should be taken to address these abuses, this should not be an excuse for abandoning some of Afghanistan’s poorest people. Through a combination of careful monitoring of on-budget assistance, aid conditionality, and working through partner organizations where appropriate, the UK and other donors can and should continue to support essential services while also fulfilling their duties of accountability to their own taxpayers.

May 2012

Prepared 28th May 2012