Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations

Afghanistan, Gross Human Rights Violations in

 Boy with tank in Afghanistan - Photo by Yan Boechat

By - Kjell Follingstad Anderson

Afghanistan has essentially been in a constant state of war since 1978. This conflict has been accompanied by gross human rights violations such as the killing of civilians, torture, and inhumane treatment.

Afghanistan is a largely mountainous country at the crossroads between central Asia, the Middle East, and south Asia.  This position has contributed both the Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic population (42% Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek, 4% Aimaq, 3% Turkmen, 2% Baluch, and 4% "other") and its historical status as the hinterland of various empires (from the Macedonian Greeks under Alexander the Great to the British).1  When Afghanistan became a republic in 1973 the neighbouring Soviet Union increased its efforts to build influence in the country. Soviet interests in Afghanistan were focussed on using the country as a buffer state between the USSR and Pakistan (which had close ties to both China and the USA).

In 1978 the Khalq (the People’s Democratic Party) assassinated the Afghan president. Months later the Khalq regime was overthrown by Babrak Karmal, leader of another communist faction.  Karmal sought closer ties with Russia but the Afghan people resisted this move with violent revolt.  The Soviets, reluctant to let a communist regime collapse, intervened.

At first this intervention took the form of military aid, but soon the Soviets invaded and occupied Afghanistan with over 100 000 troops.  The Soviet occupation was met with fierce resistance. Islam became the unifying factor in the resistance, which was funded by foreign governments such as the United States.  The conflict was brutal, with serious human rights violations on both sides, and the Soviets failed to ever achieve real control over the country.  In 1986 Karmal resigned and was replaced by Muhammed Najibullah. Two years later the Soviets, recognising the futility of their Afghan adventure, began to withdraw.

The Soviets left Afghanistan a heavily militarised and radicalised country.  The various armed groups that had fought the Soviets soon began to fight each other.  The battle lines were drawn between the moderates and the fundamentalists.  By 1994 the Taliban (the main fundamentalist faction) began to make extensive military gains.  In October of 1996 the Taliban took Kabul (the Afghan capital) and Najibullah was executed.  By 1998 the Taliban and the Northern Alliance (the main "moderate" faction) reached a stalemate with the Taliban controlling about two-thirds of the country. During the conflict both sides committed horrible atrocities.

The Taliban was, quite possibly, the most brutal regime in the world.  They instituted a distorted and medieval form of Sharia (Islamic law).  This was a vehicle for the grave human rights abuses the Taliban imposed on the country including arbitrary arrests, torture, the war crime of attacking civilians, and extremely harsh punishments (such as public executions, amputations, beatings, and stonings) for relatively minor offences.  The Ministry for Public Vice and Virtue obliged Afghans to adhere to extremely strict and conservative standards (i.e. men were required to grow beards; many forms of music were banned). 

Woman with Burqa in Herat - Photo by Yan Boechat

These standards were particularly onerous on women who were denied education, forced to cover all parts of their bodies (with only a small screen to see through), had their access to health care severely restricted, and were not allowed to leave the house (except on official government business) without the presence of a designated male escort.  The Taliban also espoused a kind of Pashtun chauvinism and targeted Hazaras for particular discrimination and killings.  Moreover, the regime hosted training camps for terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (Osama Bin Laden came to Afghanistan after being forced out of Sudan).

On September 11, 2001 terrorists (who were allegedly associated with Al Qaeda) launched a major terrorist attack on the United States, killing over two thousand people as planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center.  This spurred the United States (with widespread international support) to invade Afghanistan in order to oust the Taliban regime, which was sponsoring international terrorism.  The Americans and their allies succeeded in rapidly displacing the Taliban but the situation in Afghanistan remains unsettled. 

The Taliban continues to fight a guerrilla war against the occupying forces and regionally-based warlords hold large portions on the country under their sway.  Moreover, ethnic cleavages contribute to the challenge of rebuilding and unifying the country.  The human rights situation in the country has improved since the fall of the Taliban but it remains grim with sustained violence and attacks against civilians.  The Americans have also violated the Geneva Conventions by illegally detaining prisoners of war, without due process, at their base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The conflict in Afghanistan had had a catastrophic effect on the country, with over two million people killed and millions more displaced.  There has been some discussion about setting up an ad-hoc tribunal to try those responsible for crimes during the years of war in Afghanistan but so far an agreement has not been reached.



1 Wikipedia, "Demographics of Afghanistan,", accessed March 24, 2007.    

Patrick Brogan, The Fighting Never Stopped, New York: Vintage, 1990, p. 126.