🌊 What Afghanistan can tell us about illiberalism

On 15 August 2021, Marzia Saramad was working for UNICEF in the Afghan capital, Kabul, when the Taliban seized control. Here, she explains Afghanistan's relevance to the global illiberal agenda

I left for work in the early morning, just as I did every day. On the bus en route, everyone seemed worried, but nobody could have predicted that day's gruesome turn of events. By the time I struggled to find my way back that evening, Kabul's once-bustling streets had fallen eerily silent.

The next day, 16 August, the situation had worsened. As an Afghan woman from a minority group, I was no longer safe in my own country. Later that month, my family fled in secret to Pakistan.

Since the Taliban re-took control, women and girls have been denied fundamental human rights. Those who have spoken out have been subjected to unlawful detention and violence. The Taliban have demolished any spaces for peaceful assembly, or demonstration.

The international community and academic researchers have neglected the current crisis. Understanding what caused it can help those working to find a solution. Here, I analyse the roles of the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the international community. I argue that Afghanistan's anti-genderism, anti-modernism, and anti-liberalism all align with the definition of illiberalism.

Conservative media, which wants to limit free speech in the name of social justice, dismisses the political left as 'illiberal'. Illiberalism is a type of post-liberalism that views modern-day liberal democracy with scepticism. Illiberal constituencies, parties, and regimes exist only in countries that have already experienced liberalism. Disillusioned citizens push back against it.

The NATO alliance imposed a form of liberal democracy upon Afghanistan that failed to consider the history, traditions and desires of the local population

When the US attacked Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, it was, ostensibly, to fight terrorism. One of its objectives was to establish a liberal democracy in the country. But military intervention ended up becoming a state-building mission. Afghans were subjected to a system of liberal democracy without their consent. Rights for women and LGBT people were prioritised over national traditions and the desires of the local population.

The NATO alliance assumed that liberal democracy would work just as well in Afghanistan as it had elsewhere. But its process of nation-building had little regard for Afghan history and tradition.

How the gender backlash unites illiberal forces

Gender is a complex concept with several meanings. We use 'gender' to describe biological sex, but 'gender' also describes how a person chooses to identify. These complexities have made gender a touchpoint uniting illiberal forces.

Andrea Pető explains that illiberalism is born of several factors. These include the failures of the European liberal democratic project, Europe's historical legacy, and the complexities surrounding gender. Illiberals seize upon these gender-related challenges, particularly in response to the rise of female empowerment under neoliberalism.

Following Pető's argument, Afghanistan's illiberal turn has followed a similar pattern, but with more severe consequences. The 2001 Bonn Agreement called for the protection of human rights and the establishment of the rule of law. Under the NATO alliance, passionate women worked hard to ensure that women had a presence in public life, economic opportunities, and leadership roles. However, fundamentalists and conservatives dismissed women's rights as urban and elite-centric, claiming they undermined Afghanistan's traditional Islamic values.

The growing equality of Afghan women was not a significant contributor to the fall of the government in 2021, but women will likely suffer most from its collapse

Many factors led to the fall of Afghanistan's government, but the growing equality and prominence of Afghan women was not a significant contributor. Nonetheless, women will likely suffer the most from its collapse, and from the subsequent gender backlash. Access to education, employment, and public spaces is now denied to girls and women, along with other basic freedoms promised by the Bonn Agreement.

Liberal democracy and the Bonn Agreement

On 5 December 2001, representatives of diverse anti-Taliban groups signed the Bonn Agreement. The Agreement called for the establishment of a liberal democratic system based on freedom, equality, and justice, with free and fair elections and a multi-party system.

The international community, including the US and its allies, supported the reconstruction of Afghanistan's political system. But the allies faced significant challenges, particularly in security and governance. Nonetheless, expanding liberal democratic institutions remained central to the reconstruction effort.

Afghanistan under the Taliban cannot be classified under any specific government type or ideology. Indeed, its government is not officially recognised by the international political community. But the Taliban's vehement opposition to liberal ideology means that it is operating an extreme form of illiberalism.

The most recent rise of the Taliban is a backlash against US-enforced liberalism

Marlene Laruelle argues that we could interpret the Taliban's 1990s regime as an illiberal response to the modernisation under 1980s Soviet occupation. The most recent rise of the Taliban is a backlash against US-enforced liberalism.

Thus, the Taliban’s current success could only have come about as a result of previously imposed liberal policies and projects. After its 2021 victory, the Taliban reneged on its promises to respect human rights. It restricted free speech, and imposed severe limitations on women's movement and educational access. The Taliban are unwilling and unable to work towards a peaceful, fair society.

'Fleeting and superficial'

Analysing Afghanistan through the lens of illiberalism reveals a complex, multifaceted crisis. The historical context, international interventions, and internal dynamics suggest that we can indeed describe the current regime as illiberal.

Afghanistan's experience of liberalism, mediated primarily through external interventions and mimicked institutional forms, was fleeting and superficial. It failed to establish itself in the country’s socio-political fabric. The re-emergence of the Taliban and the rapid reversal of liberal policies dismantled not only liberal democracy but fundamental human rights, especially those concerning gender.

Treating the Taliban regime as illiberal will ensure that the international community does not dismiss the crisis as a national or internal failure. To build inclusive governance structures, it is crucial we engage young people, women, and marginalised communities – rather than warlords – in international debates. Seeking input from local communities, prioritising local perspectives, and empowering young people to play active roles in decision-making and policy implementation can bring fresh ideas, and a strong sense of ownership, to initiatives addressing Afghanistan's deep-seated problems.

No.36 in a thread on the 'illiberal wave' 🌊 sweeping world politics

This blog piece was written for the course 'Gendering Illiberalism', co-designed and co-taught by Andrea Pető (with TA Irfana Khatoon) and Alina Dragolea (with TA Oana Dervis) sponsored by CIVICA alliance universities Central European University (CEU) and the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (SNSPA).

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Marzia Saramad
Marzia Saramad
Master’s Candidate, Gender Studies Department, Central European University, Vienna

Marzia majors in Critical Gender Studies.

For her graduate thesis, she is conducting a comparative study on ‘The gendered experiences of settlement: A comparative study of Afghanistan female and male refugees’ integration experience in Edmonton, Canada.’

Her research aims to highlight the challenges and opportunities that refugees face in integrating into a new society, particularly with regard to gender norms and expectations.

Marzia's research interests are around gender issues and justice.

She is particularly interested in exploring ways to empower women and promote gender equality, domestically and globally.

She is passionate about human rights and women's rights, marginalised communities, including immigrants and refugees.

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