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Afghan National Police during a joint patrol with American military police in Kandahar, Afghanistan.TYLER HICKS/The New York Times

The beheading of 15 men and two women who dared to hold a private party in southern Afghanistan is a stark reminder of the precarious state of human rights in that country, and justifies Canada's continuing commitment to a security-training mission.

The 17 civilians were killed in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province, which the Taliban control, reportedly as a punishment for holding a celebration involving music and dancing, activities considered "un-Islamic" under the insurgents' twisted interpretation of justice.

The incident underscores the deteriorating security situation in parts of the country. As NATO troops prepare to withdraw by 2014, Afghanistan is like to become even more volatile, and there is fear that gains made by women and other civilians will be eroded.

The government of President Hamid Karzai might be tempted to give in to the Taliban's medieval views on gender segregation, in an effort to reach a political reconciliation. Such a compromise, however, is clearly not acceptable. Mr. Karzai was right to condemn the gruesome killings on Monday, and Western leaders, including Canada's, must continue to link ongoing support to an improvement in human rights. The presence of 950 Canadian trainers can help to professionalize Afghanistan's security forces, and to guard against Taliban infiltration.

Under the Taliban regime, from 1996 to 2001, a brutal form of gender apartheid kept women and girls virtual prisoners in their homes; they were forbidden from going to school, working, showing their faces in public, or being seen without a male escort. They could not wear make-up or nail polish, laugh or speak loudly, and those who disobeyed faced public floggings and executions.

Since then, women have slowly regained the right to attend school, work and hold political office. But there have been many setbacks. The world must help the Karzai government safeguard these hard-won freedoms, strengthen the country's security forces and ensure the Taliban don't seize control.

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