Freedom in the World 2021 - Afghanistan

/ 100
Political Rights 13 / 40
Civil Liberties 14 / 60
27 / 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.


Afghanistan’s constitution provides for a unitary state, headed by a directly elected president, with significant checks from the parliament and a wide range of rights guaranteed to citizens. However, an insurgency waged by Islamist militants has undermined the writ of the state in much of the rural hinterland, severely restricting the franchise. Political rights and civil liberties are curtailed in practice by violence, corruption, patronage, and flawed electoral processes.

Key Developments in 2020

  • In February, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced that President Ghani had claimed victory in the September 2019 presidential poll, and he was inaugurated for his second term in March. Challenger Abdullah Abdullah refused to accept the result, and held a parallel inauguration. In May, the two teams signed a political agreement to work together in a government headed by Ghani.
  • The United States signed an agreement with the Taliban in February according to which the Americans announced a conditional troop withdrawal timetable, and intra-Afghan negotiations were to commence. These negotiations, between the Taliban and a government delegation, convened in Doha in September but had made no substantive progress by year end.
  • Conflict between Afghan government forces and the Taliban continued. After the US-Taliban agreement, US forces exercised restraint on the battlefield, intervening only to support Afghan positions during Taliban attacks. The Taliban refrained from high-casualty attacks on population centers or on international forces, but stepped up attacks against Afghan security forces, as well as targeted killings in Kabul and other cities.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded over 50,000 COVID-19 infections, and 2,000 related deaths, and the country imposed limited lockdown measures early in the year. Afghanistan suffered fewer direct effects from the pandemic than many other countries, however, and the ongoing conflict had a greater impact on everyday life.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4

Afghanistan’s president is directly elected for up to two five-year terms and has the power to appoint ministers, subject to parliamentary approval. In February 2020, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced that Ashraf Ghani had won the September 2019 presidential election with 50.64 percent of votes cast. However, his leading opponent, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, contested the result, and held a parallel inauguration alongside Ghani’s on March 9. The electoral dispute was resolved in a May 17 political agreement between the Ghani and Abdullah camps that confirmed Ashraf Ghani as president, heading a cabinet whose members were nominated by both teams. Abdullah in turn headed a new High Reconciliation Council charged with running Afghanistan’s peace process.

The 2019 election process featured several flaws and challenges. Final turnout was approximately 1.8 million—a historic low for a presidential election. The campaign was hampered by uncertainty over whether the election would take place or not. The election authorities successfully rolled out an electoral roll and biometric voter verification (BVV) technology, but there were major problems in the BVV implementation. Over a million initially reported votes had to be thrown out because of the lack of any corresponding BVV; other controversies centered on the handling of separate discrepancies in the BVV record. Finally, the commissioners and their secretariats struggled to maintain the confidence of candidate teams and to allay suspicions of political interference.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4

In the directly elected lower house of the National Assembly, the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), members stand for five-year terms. In the 102-seat Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders), the upper house, the provincial councils elect two-thirds of members for three- or four-year terms, and the president appoints the remaining third for five-year terms. The constitution envisages the election of district councils, which would also send members to the Meshrano Jirga, though these have not been established. Ten Wolesi Jirga seats are reserved for the nomadic Kuchi community, including at least three women, and 65 of the chamber’s general seats are reserved for women.

Parliamentary elections originally scheduled for 2014 were postponed amid security concerns, and the president extended the legislature’s mandate with an apparently unconstitutional decree until elections were finally held in October 2018. Despite security threats from the Taliban, which threatened to punish people for voting, and poor organization by the Independent Election Commission (IEC), more than four million people voted (approximately half of registered voters). The vote count and adjudication process were protracted and contested, amidst allegations of corruption by members of the electoral commissions. Other problems included a poll worker shortage, attributed to fears of violence, and difficulties with the then-untested biometric identification system that contributed to delays in opening polling stations, and long lines. Many people reportedly waited hours to vote, and some left before casting their ballots.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4

Elections are administered by the IEC, and disputes are adjudicated by the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). Following the highly contested vote count and audit process that accompanied the 2018 parliamentary elections, both election management bodies were disbanded in February 2019, and several members of the bodies were prosecuted, found guilty of corruption, and jailed. Members of the new IEC and ECC were nominated by political parties and civil society organizations, voted on by the presidential candidates, and sworn in in March 2019. The bodies also included international experts inducted as nonvoting members. Nevertheless, candidates continued to question the independence and competence of IEC and ECC members and their secretariats during the 2019 presidential election.

Parliamentary and provincial council elections are conducted using a Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system, in multimember constituencies, which tends to award most seats to candidates with a low vote share. Political parties have been unsuccessful in their attempts to replace SNTV with a proportional system. A new voter roll and biometric voter verification were introduced in 2018 and 2019 and have helped limit the mass fraudulent voting that marred earlier elections. But, recent electoral complaints reflected concerns that the election management bodies may have colluded in circumventing the new safeguards.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 2 / 4

Afghans have the right to form or join a political party and there is a highly competitive field of parties, espousing a range of traditional, Islamist, and liberal ideologies. In practice, most candidates for elected office run as independents and participate in fluid alliances linked to local and regional patronage networks. While political parties have been free to seek registration since 2005, they have yet to consolidate mass support. The main parties are typically defined in relation to prominent figures or factions who had a role in earlier stages of the country’s ongoing conflict.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 2 / 4

Multiple opposition leaders and parties seek power through elections. However, the question of whether these elections provide a realistic route to power for a democratic opposition remains unsettled.

The Afghan president’s control over administrative and security-sector appointments throughout the country and influence in financial-resource allocation offers the incumbent significant electoral advantages, and the 2019 presidential election and its aftermath left open the question of whether the opposition has a route to power through elections. The balance of power in the government formed after the May 2020 political agreement depended on negotiations, protests, coalition-building, control of the electoral institutions, and exercise of patronage, in addition to the direct appeal to voters.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 1 / 4

The dominant threat to the free exercise of Afghans’ political choices is the insurgency waged by the Taliban movement, which exerts complete or partial control over most rural areas and conducts intimidation in some urban areas. The Taliban are opposed to the current political system on the basis that they consider electoral democracy un-Islamic. They have thus sought to disrupt elections and have targeted civilians whom they accuse of being apologists for the government or political system more generally.

In addition to the Taliban insurgency, in many parts of the country former military commanders have emerged as important local power brokers, often with patronage links to the government and influence in the security forces or informal militias. These local power brokers typically exercise disproportionate influence over the population in their areas and attempt to speak on behalf of the community when dealing with government.

The civil administration and moneyed elites also exert undue influence over the electoral apparatus, and these concerns were reflected in the justice system, when members of the electoral commissions were tried and convicted of fraud in 2019. The expectation of fraud and sense that actual votes would not count likely contributed to low turnout in areas where there was little Taliban threat to polling.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 2 / 4

The constitution recognizes multiple ethnic and linguistic minorities and provides more guarantees of equal status to minorities than historically have been available in Afghanistan. Since 2001, the traditionally marginalized Shiite Muslim minority, which includes most ethnic Hazaras, has enjoyed increased levels of political representation and participation in national institutions. Over the past three presidential elections, the main tickets have included vice presidents from the minority ethnic groups as a way of broadening the appeal of the ticket. Through this tradition of coalition building, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks have all had a stake in the electoral contest.

Women’s political participation has been constrained by threats, harassment, and social restrictions on traveling alone and appearing in public. The proportion of women registered as voters declined from 41 percent in 2010 to 34 percent in 2018. In 2018, over 400 women competed for the 68 parliamentary seats allocated to female representatives. All candidates running in the 2019 presidential poll were men.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 1 / 4

The ability of the president and their cabinet, acting in concert with the legislature, to set and implement state policies is limited by a number of factors. The government remains heavily dependent on military and economic support from the United States and its allies, and it is unable to enforce its laws and decisions in parts of the country controlled by the Taliban and other insurgents. Parliament exercises weak oversight over the executive, is often disregarded by the government, and very rarely adopts legislation on its own initiative.

During 2020, the peace initiative led by the US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad highlighted the challenge faced by the president in retaining effective control over national policy while facing an armed insurgency, and remaining dependent on the United States and other allies for military and economic assistance. While the agreement that was ultimately signed between the United States and the Taliban had strong implications for the Afghan government, the government had no role in agreement’s negotiation. In particular, the agreement committed the United States to ensuring that the Afghan authorities released 5,000 Taliban prisoners, despite President Ghani being unconvinced of the wisdom of releasing so many prisoners. However, after organizing a consultative assembly (Loya Jirga), he obtained a mandate to proceed with the releases. Similarly, in the final stages of the first round of talks, the president found himself under intense pressure to accept a compromise favored by the US-led diplomatic team facilitating the talks.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4

There have been periodic arrests, prosecutions, and dismissals of civilian and military officials accused of corruption, and an Anti-Corruption Justice Centre (ACJC) was established in 2016, bringing together specialized police, prosecutors, and courts to focus on high-level malfeasance. Nevertheless, corruption remains an endemic problem, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary are themselves compromised by graft and political pressure, and the most powerful officials and politicians effectively enjoy impunity.

During the process of government formation after the May 2020 political agreement, numerous reports claimed that key senior appointments could only be secured through cash payment to the appointing authority.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4

Government operations are largely opaque, and corruption is endemic in the management of public-sector contracting. The ownership of mining companies that receive government contracts often goes undisclosed, effectively allowing individuals and entities legally prohibited from winning contracts, such as members of parliament, to participate. The National Procurement Commission, established in 2014 and chaired by the president to guide the National Procurement Authority (NPA), has made some positive progress in reforming procurement processes.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4

Afghanistan has a vibrant media sector, with multiple outlets in print, radio, and television that collectively carry a wide range of views and are generally uncensored. Media providers include independent and commercial firms, as well as a state broadcaster and outlets tied to specific political interests.

However, journalists face the threat of harassment and attack by the Taliban, Islamic State (IS) militant group, and government-related figures attempting to influence how they are covered in the news. Restrictions on freedom of expression have been justified in the name of avoiding incitement to or support of terrorism. The Afghan authorities ban the live television coverage of terrorist incidents, which can restrict on-the-ground television reporting. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recorded five journalists killed in 2020, and named Afghanistan in the top three countries for retaliatory killings against journalists.

A rapid expansion in the availability of mobile phones, the internet, and social media has granted many Afghans greater access to diverse views and information. The Afghan government has publicly supported media freedom and cooperated with initiatives to counter security threats to media workers. Nevertheless, high-level officials, including Ghani, periodically question the validity of stories critical of the government and attempt to discredit journalists.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1 / 4

While religious freedom has improved since 2001, it is still hampered by violence and discrimination aimed at religious minorities and reformist Muslims. The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and guarantees freedom of worship to other religions. Blasphemy and apostasy by Muslims are considered capital crimes, and non-Muslim proselytizing is strongly discouraged in practice. Conservative social attitudes, intolerance, and the inability or unwillingness of law enforcement officials to defend individual freedoms mean that those perceived as violating religious and social norms are highly vulnerable to abuse.

Terrorist attacks against places of worship, funerals, and sites associated with religious and sectarian minority groups continued during 2020. In March, a suicide attack on a gurdwara in Kabul killed 25 people. Thirty-six people were killed in an attack the same month on a gathering in west Kabul to commemorate Shia leader Abdul Ali Mazari, who was slain in 1995. In May, 24 people were killed in a maternity hospital located in a Shia-dominated area of Kabul. Some observers have interpreted these attacks as attempts to stoke sectarian tensions where they have not historically existed.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1 / 4

Academic freedom is largely tolerated in government-controlled areas, where public schools and universities enjoy full autonomy from the government (though there are serious shortages of qualified instructors and up-to-date teaching materials).

The conflict continues to directly impact the education system. In November, 35 people were killed when Islamist militants stormed the campus of Kabul University. Government security forces and the Taliban have both taken over schools to use as military posts. The expansion of Taliban control in rural areas has left an increasing number of public schools outside of government control. The Taliban operate an education commission in parallel to the official Ministry of Education. Although their practices vary between areas, some schools under Taliban control reportedly allow teachers to continue teaching, but ban certain subjects and replace them with Islamic studies.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2 / 4

Although private discussion in government-held areas is largely free and unrestrained, discussion of a political nature is more dangerous for Afghans living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. Government security agencies have increased their ability to monitor the internet, including social media platforms. However, this monitoring has not yet had a perceptible impact on social media use.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 2 / 4

The constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, subject to some restrictions, but this right is upheld erratically from region to region. The police sometimes fire live ammunition when attempting to break up demonstrations, and in past years demonstrations have been subject to devastating and deadly terrorist or militant attacks. The Taliban suppresses demonstrations in areas it controls.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1 / 4

The constitution guarantees the right to form nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and both the legal framework and the national authorities are relatively supportive of civil society groups. NGOs play an important role in the country, particularly in urban areas, where thousands of cultural, welfare, and sports associations operate.

However, NGOs are sometimes hampered by official corruption and bureaucratic reporting requirements, and the threat of violence by armed groups is a major obstacle to their activities. The Taliban operates its own commission to regulate the affairs of companies and organizations. While the Taliban have to some extent allowed access for NGOs to areas which they control, the commission and field commanders often impose arbitrary restrictions, in particular against organizations deemed to be close to the Afghan government.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4

Despite broad constitutional protections for workers, labor rights are not well defined in law, and no effective enforcement or dispute-resolution mechanisms are currently in place. Unions are largely absent from the informal and agricultural sectors, which account for most Afghan workers.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4

The judicial system operates haphazardly, and justice in many places is administered on the basis of a mixture of legal codes by inadequately trained judges. Corruption in the judiciary is extensive, with judges and lawyers often subject to threats and bribes from local leaders or armed groups. Informal justice systems, employing variants of both customary law and Sharia (Islamic law), are widely used to arbitrate disputes, especially in rural areas. The Taliban have installed their own judiciary in areas they control, but many Taliban commanders impose arbitrary punishments without reference to this system.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4

Prosecutions and trials suffer from a number of weaknesses, including lack of proper representation, excessive reliance on uncorroborated witness testimony, lack of reliable forensic evidence, arbitrary decision-making, and failure to publish court decisions. The police force is heavily militarized and primarily focused on its role as a first line of defense against insurgents in administrative centers. There are high levels of corruption and complicity in organized crime among police, particularly near key smuggling routes. There is an entrenched culture of impunity for the country’s political and military power brokers.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4

The Afghan population remains acutely vulnerable to the full range of threats from armed conflict, including violence to the person, loss of property and livelihood, chronic insecurity, and encroachment on liberty by the arbitrary rule of armed groups. The experience of the war varies dramatically between different sections of the population and areas.

The US government continued to drive a peace process during 2020, with the Taliban scaling back attacks in the week preceding the agreement reached in February. The Taliban also paused violence for three days over each of the two Eids. Under the February deal, the United States announced a conditional troop withdrawal timetable, and intra-Afghan negotiations (IAN) were to commence. The IAN convened in Doha in September but had made no substantive progress by year’s end, and the Taliban declared their intention to sustain their military campaign against Afghan forces. When the negotiation teams assembled in Doha, the Taliban made it clear that they were uninterested in discussing an early ceasefire.

After the US-Taliban agreement, US forces exercised new restraint on the battlefield, only intervening to support Afghan security forces while they were being attacked by the Taliban. For their part, the Taliban generally refrained from high-casualty attacks on population centers or on international forces. But Taliban stepped up attacks on Afghan security forces and mounted an intensified campaign of targeted killings of Afghans, in Kabul and other cities, whom they deemed to be apologists for the government or political system. The Taliban avoided claiming responsibility for the urban target-killing, but both the Afghan government and diplomatic missions in Kabul concluded that the killings were conducted by the group.

As a result of these shifts in the conflict, civilians in many rural areas controlled by the Taliban experienced less violence due to reduced bombardment and ground offensives. But in areas contested by Taliban and government, such as around district centers, there was an intensification of violence. And in urban areas, the risk of being caught in suicide bombings was replaced by the chronic insecurity of the targeted-killing campaign.

The US-led peace process only involved the Taliban, and not the Islamic State (IS). In the spring, the Taliban launched a successful ground offensive against the last enclave controlled by Islamic State, in Kunar Province. Thereafter, the Islamic State survived as an underground terrorist network, conducting occasional attacks. But the loss of territory and dispersal of many of its fighters left the Islamic State militarily severely weakened.

There were contradictory trends in and claims about the overall levels of violence during the year. On the one hand, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted a significant reduction in civilian casualties relative to recent years: 5,939 civilian casualties in the first three quarters of 2020 (2,117 killed and 3,822 injured). This was equivalent to a 30 percent drop in civilian casualties relative to the same period in 2019. Those who were optimistic about the negotiation process in Doha attributed this fall to the voluntary restraint, or a “reduction in violence,” which US negotiators said the Taliban had promised, while signing the February agreement. By other indicators, violence intensified after the US-Taliban agreement. The hopeful trends in the UNAMA figures were attributable to a decline in mass-casualty suicide attacks, which in turn reflected both the decline of the IS and the pause of the Taliban bombing campaign in Kabul. The decline also reflected the reduction in aerial bombardment of the Taliban by US forces. The decline in civilians killed by the Taliban was modest.

Meanwhile, Afghan authorities produced figures that reflected increased intensity of Taliban attacks. For example, the Afghan National Security Council reported that the third week of June was the deadliest of the conflict so far, with Taliban carrying out 422 attacks in 32 provinces, killing 291 members of the Afghan National Security Forces and wounding 550 others. In August, President Ghani reported that Taliban had inflicted 12,279 military and civilian casualties since their February agreement with the United States.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4

Despite some legal protections, members of religious, ethnic and other minority groups remain subject to harassment and discrimination, including in employment and education. Ethnic-based patronage practices affect different groups’ access to jobs depending on the local context. The population of non-Muslim minorities such as Hindus and Sikhs has shrunk to a tiny fraction of its former size due to emigration in recent decades. Women face severe disadvantages in the justice system, access to employment, and other matters, with harmful societal norms often overriding legal guarantees.

There is no legal protection for LGBT+ people, who face societal disapproval and abuse by police. Same-sex sexual activity is considered illegal under the penal code and Sharia.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 0 / 4

The constitution grants Afghans freedom of movement, residence, and travel abroad. However, these freedoms are severely circumscribed in practice by the ongoing civil conflict, which continued to cause mass displacement and render travel unsafe in much of the country. Amnesty International reported that were are as many as 4 million internally displaced people, driven from their homes by conflict, natural disaster, and climate change. Many of them have remained in displaced persons camps for much of the current twenty-year conflict. Some 114,000 people were reported newly displaced in the first six months of 2020.

Opportunities for Afghans to seek refuge abroad have been curtailed in recent years, as the European Union (EU) has attempted to reinforce its external border and member states have increased deportations of failed asylum seekers, Iran and Pakistan have compelled hundreds of thousands of refugees to return home, and the United States has decreased the number of refugees permitted annually.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4

Citizens are formally free to own property, buy and sell land, and establish businesses. However, economic freedoms are constrained by corruption, and the dominant economic role of a narrow, politically connected elite. Over the past two decades the most profitable activities available to Afghans have been government and defense contracting, narcotics trafficking, and property and minerals development. Investors in all of these sectors have depended on connections to those in power. Land theft backed by the threat of force is a serious problem.

A combination of harassment, extortion, and arbitrary taxation make for a highly unfavorable business climate for any investor hoping to operate within the law. Companies are only able to operate in areas the Taliban controls by paying illegal taxes. The movement now also routinely extorts money from traders in government-controlled towns.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 0 / 4

Domestic violence against women remains pervasive. In 2017, the Ministry of Public Health estimated that 51 percent of women experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. However, women’s rights activists maintain that only a small proportion of actual incidents are reported. According to a May 2018 report published by the United Nations, many cases of violence against women are dealt with by traditional mediation, rather than through the criminal justice system; this largely enables impunity for perpetrators.

Women’s choices regarding marriage and divorce remain restricted by custom and discriminatory laws. The forced marriage of young girls to older men or widows to their husbands’ male relations is a problem, and many girls continue to be married before the legal age of 16. The courts and the detention system have been used to enforce social control of women, for example by jailing those who defy their families’ wishes regarding marriage.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4

The constitution bans forced labor and gives all citizens the right to work. However, debt bondage remains a problem, as does child labor, which is particularly prevalent in the carpet industry. Most human trafficking victims in Afghanistan are children trafficked internally to work in various industries, become domestic servants, settle debts, or be subjected to sexual exploitation. Children are also vulnerable to recruitment by armed militant groups, and to a lesser extent by government security forces.