Injecting Rights Into the U.S.-Afghanistan Relationship

When Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, addresses the U.S. Congress this week, his government's commitment to human rights is likely to get a passing reference in his speech -- but given the formidable challenges Afghanistan faces in protecting fundamental human rights, it deserves much more than that.

One of Ghani's greatest challenges is dealing with the legacy of warlords and "strongmen" who continue to wield power in much of Afghanistan. Since 2001 U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been dictated by arming some of these powerful strongmen for short-term security -- at the cost of good governance and long-term stability. Fundamental rights and the rule of law lie neglected. This time around, the U.S. should support Ghani's reform efforts, since he, unlike his predecessor, has signaled a genuine readiness to curb some of the worst abuses committed by the Afghan security forces, and to reform Afghanistan's corrupt and rights-infringing judiciary.

Ghani wants U.S. troops to remain longer and foreign funding to pay the salaries of Afghan soldiers and police to counter an increasing Taliban threat. However, thus far, a significant amount of U.S. military assistance has armed and equipped militia and police forces -- and their commanders -- some of whom have assaulted, raped and extorted money from local residents, thereby alienating the population and fueling the insurgency. The Afghan government should disband all irregular armed groups and hold them accountable for abuses they have committed.

Ghani has vowed to address torture by the security forces, but he is under pressure not to rein in commanders who are "good at killing Taliban" -- even if they torture, kill and forcibly disappear Afghan civilians in the process. Continuing past abusive practices is no answer. The U.S. should instead link military aid to demonstrated improvements in security force accountability. The UN has already recommended crucial steps to curb abuse, including allowing for regular, unannounced inspections of detention facilities, closing secret detention centers, and prosecuting police and intelligence officials who engage in torture. The U.S. should use these as benchmarks and tailor aid commitments accordingly.

Ghani has also vowed to "not surrender" the achievements made in developing Afghan media, civil society and women's rights as the government pursues peace talks with the Taliban. That bears close watching, but meanwhile impunity within Afghan government institutions poses just as great a threat to those gains. Police and government officials who threaten and attack journalists and human rights activists have long gone unpunished, and violence against women is seldom prosecuted. The murder last week of a 27-year-old woman in Kabul by a violent mob calls into question the government's ability to ensuring rule of law and protecting women, not to mention its commitment to these aims.

At this pivotal moment in Afghanistan's history, when the battlefield pressures make the temptations of expediency stronger than ever, both the U.S. and Afghan governments need to adopt a change of course. Supporting specific measures to end impunity for serious human rights abuses is a crucial starting point.

Patricia Gossman is senior researcher on Afghanistan at Human Rights Watch.