In a report released Monday night, Human Rights Watch accused soldiers and police loyal to powerful warlords — many of whom are in the government — of kidnapping, extortion, robbery and the rape of women, girls and boys. The New York-based group also detailed numerous death threats against Afghan journalists and low-level politicians who criticized authorities.
"If allowed to continue with impunity, these abuses will make it impossible for Afghans to create a modern, democratic state," the group said.
President Hamid Karzai's administration has been struggling to rebuild this war-shattered country and extend the central government's authority beyond Kabul, the capital. Most of Afghanistan is controlled by warlords who rule as they see fit and have private armies of their own.
Most of those now in power were backed by the United States and its allies in the war that toppled the Taliban in late 2001 and many still work as allies alongside American troops now in the country.
Karzai appointed many of the warlords as governors because they already controlled areas in the lawless wake of the Taliban's collapse.
His government is supposed to draft a new constitution in October and government officials are traveling through the countryside to solicit public views on what the charter should contain. National elections to choose a new head of state are scheduled for next June.
Presidential spokesman Jawid Luddin said both processes are on track and the government is doing all it can to cut down on rights abuses. He said it is a difficult job in a country where few members of security forces have received training on respecting human rights.
"It's obviously a gigantic task. We still have a long way to go, but we're moving forward to the extent it's possible for the government," Jawid said.
The U.S. military command at Bagram air base north of Kabul did not respond to an e-mail request seeking comment on the Human Rights Watch report.
Most abuses detailed in the 101-page report were "ordered, committed or condoned by government personnel in Afghanistan — soldiers, police, military and intelligence officials and government ministers," the rights group said.
Testimony from victims and witnesses implicated soldiers and police serving senior officials, including Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, Education Minister Yunus Qanooni, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful former leader of guerrillas who fought against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
The report also details abuses against women and girls and says threats, violence, political intimidation, attacks and "resurgent religious fundamentalism" are keeping countless women indoors or out of work and millions of girls out of school.
The report focuses on southeastern Afghanistan and documents abuses it says were committed "in virtually every district" in the region in the first six months of this year.
The group said it previously documented similar violations in Kandahar in the south, Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west, each controlled by powerful warlords nominally working with the government.
Human Rights Watch called for increasing the 5,000-soldier international peacekeeping force and extending its area of operation outside Kabul, a move few — if any — foreign powers support.
At the same time, the group urged Karzai's government to "sideline and pressure abusive leaders" who it said have "essentially hijacked the country."
Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said the overall human rights situation appeared to be worsening, in part because of U.S. and other allied support for warlords.
"External support for warlords is destabilizing Afghanistan," Adams said. "The United States and the United Kingdom, in particular, need to decide whether they are with President Karzai and other reformers in Kabul or with the warlords. The longer they wait, the more difficult it will be to loosen the warlords' grip on power."
In a visit to Washington this month, the Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah, said "The international community should build the capacity in the central government in order to deal with the core issues of security and reconstruction in the economic sector."
The White House is considering accelerating $1 billion of aid to Afghanistan, as reconstruction projects lag and security problems persist.
According to published reports, the $1 billion is part of $3.3 billion that Congress approved for use in Afghanistan, but which has been slowly spent. Only $300 million has been used so far and administration officials want to spend more before 2004 elections there.
In Khost province, Italian forces on Sunday uncovered a weapons cache — the fourth found in the area in the last two weeks — said Col. Rodney Davis, spokesman for coalition forces in Afghanistan. It included sniper rifles, machine guns, rifles and a rocket launcher, along with 30 rockets and several 82 mm mortars.
Another cache was discovered Saturday when Afghan troops spotted two men running from a village.