AFGHANISTAN: New Worries About Women's Rights and Ethnic Tensions Emerge in Afghanistan

Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Graham Bowley for the New York Times
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Events this week that raised questions on women's rights and ethnic tensions have added to long-term concerns about Afghanistan after American-led forces withdraw in 2014 and new elections are held.

Over the past two days, women's rights advocates and others have expressed outrage over comments by the Afghan justice minister in which he claimed that women's shelters encouraged “immorality and prostitution,” according to news reports.

Rights workers see the shelters as vital to help protect women who face abuse and exploitation with little recourse under local and traditional law. Amid concerns that conservatives could roll back tentative progress made on women's rights, the United Nations office in Afghanistan stepped in on Tuesday, issuing a statement saying that it “strongly supports the critical role that women's protection shelters play in providing support and safety for vulnerable Afghan women and girls, especially victims of domestic abuse and violence.”

And in new evidence of sectarian strains, a prominent Afghan ethnic leader has asserted that a new national almanac published by the country's Academy of Sciences significantly understates the size of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities and makes discriminatory statements about the Hazaras, his own ethnic group.

Late Tuesday, the outcry appeared to have forced the hand of President Hamid Karzai, whose office said he had fired the academy's director, and Afghan officials said he had also dismissed three others in the academy.

The Hazara leader, the former warlord Hajji Mohammed Mohaqiq, said that the almanac estimated that Hazaras constituted only about 9 percent of the Afghan population and that Pashtuns made up 60 percent. He said that the almanac also called the Hazaras, who are Shiites, infidels, among other inflammatory things. He demanded that the book be withdrawn and called for the abolition of the academy, which is under the control of Mr. Karzai's office.

“A corrupt circle of characters surround President Karzai who are preparing for a civil war after 2014,” he said.

The almanac is not yet in general circulation, and officials at the academy would not discuss whether Mr. Mohaqiq's assertions were correct.

Experts say it is hard to determine the country's ethnic makeup. The C.I.A. World Factbook, for instance, estimates that the Hazaras make up 9 percent of the country's population, the same as the figure said to be in the almanac, though it puts the Pashtun population lower, at 42 percent. But that is based on old data — there is no official Afghan census, and the country has changed through the past 10 years of war and turmoil. Some prominent Hazaras argue that the ethnic group may represent more than 20 percent of the population, though that, too, can be seen as a politicized figure.

In any case, Mr. Mohaqiq's claims have resonated in the news media here at a delicate time, ahead of the withdrawal of NATO troops and the national elections. Estimates of the country's demographics are seen as critical to establishing government representation, and Mr. Mohaqiq said that in the past such matters had led to civil conflict.

There is a sectarian component to the tensions, too. Members of Afghanistan's Shiite minority, most of whom are Hazaras, faced savage discrimination during the years of rule by the Taliban, who are predominantly Pashtun. Though sectarian violence has been a less significant part of the insurgent violence of the past 10 years, there are concerns that such strife could be rekindled after NATO troops withdraw.

On Tuesday, an investigation into a bloody attack aimed at Shiites in Kabul last December found that it had been planned in Pakistan and had been intended to incite sectarian strife.

The chief prosecutor, Mohammed Ishaq Aloko, led an official commission looking into the attack, in which one of two potential suicide bombers struck a procession of Shiites at a shrine on Ashura, which marks the death of Shiite Islam's holiest martyr. At the time, an extremist group based in Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack.

“It was a special conspiracy on a special religious day of our nation,” he said at a news conference, adding that two Afghans had confessed to driving the bombers from Peshawar, Pakistan. “They wanted to ignite sectarian conflict in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, the summer fighting season continued in southern Afghanistan, with two insurgent attacks against Afghan and NATO security forces near Kandahar.

The attacks punctured a few months of relative calm brought about by more aggressive policing by Afghan security forces.

In one attack, insurgents wearing police uniforms besieged a police base on the outskirts of Kandahar, leaving four police officers dead and seven wounded, Afghan officials said. Three suicide bombers infiltrated the base before detonating themselves, NATO said. A fourth was killed before he could gain entry.

The base, where about 30 police officers are stationed, acts as a checkpoint for traffic entering or leaving the city. Some NATO troops are also stationed there, but there were no reports of NATO casualties.

The second attack took place about 50 miles north of Kandahar in the district of Shah Wali Kot. The attack, on a joint NATO-Afghan military base, resulted in the deaths of seven Taliban fighters, NATO and Afghan officials said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Southern Afghanistan is still seen as volatile and vulnerable to Taliban violence. But officials said the frequency and the size of the attacks had diminished a little in recent months because of the increase in the number of Afghan security forces being deployed, especially in Kandahar, and an increase in the number of raids to detain suspected insurgents and restrict their movements.

The tactics are forcing the insurgency to resort to attacks on the city's fringes or in outlying districts, as in Tuesday's burst of violence, the officials said.

“We deployed more security forces in Kandahar and out of Kandahar City, and that is the reason Kandahar is calm,” Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief in Kandahar Province, said in an interview.