The New York-based group said in a report on Tuesday that attacks on women and girls, political intimidation, and violence were discouraging political participation and endangering gains in women’s rights since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Gunmen and commanders – bolstered by the United States and its coalition partners – were committing serious abuses, said Brad Adams, HRW executive director for Asia.

"With less than a year to go before national elections, Afghanistan's human rights situation appears to be worsening."

The report, which covered Kabul and the most populous south-eastern parts of Afghanistan, said the atmosphere of violence and a "resurgent religious fundamentalism" in some parts were endangering most rights improvements since the Taliban were ousted.

It said abuses by army and police troops included rape of women, girls and boys, kidnap for ransom and extortion.

It also said journalists and political organisers had been threatened with death and faced arrest and harassment by the army, police and intelligence agents.

Many families are keeping girls out of school due to the conditions.

"Afghanistan's human rights situation appears to be worsening."

Human Rights Watch

Almost all women interviewed said life was better than under the Taliban as they were no longer barred from working, studying or going out without coverall burqas.

But many said they could still not go out uncovered for fear of harassment or violence. "We couldn't go out during the Taliban," the report quoted one woman as saying. "Now we are free and we can go out, but we don't."

High level abuse

The report added that witnesses pointed to abuses by soldiers and police under many high-level officials.

They included Defence Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Hazrat Ali, the military leader in the east; Education Minister Yunis Qanuni; former President Burhannudin Rabbani and powerful  former mujahideen leader Abd al Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf.

The report also pointed to abuses by forces of Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai, Herat governor Ismail Khan and northern warlords Ustad Atta Mohammad and Abdul Rashid Dostum.

"The situation today – widespread insecurity and human rights abuse – was not inevitable, nor was it the result of natural or unstoppable social or political forces," it said.

"It is, in large part, the result of decisions, acts, and omissions of the US government, the governments of other coalition members, and parts of the transitional Afghan government itself," it said.

"President Hamid Karzai has taken positive steps in some cases, but for the most part he has been too weak politically to implement changes that might limit or end day-to-day abuses."