Afghanistan, Patriarchy and the World System

By Valentine M. Moghadam

That war is gendered – imbued with norms and practices of femininity and masculinity, and with differential effects on women and men – is now commonly accepted (Goldstein 2001). Some studies posit a relationship between militarism and war, on the one hand, and patriarchal relations on the other (Cockburn 2011; Enloe 1989). Others examine war, including civil conflict, as an opportunity for change, including increased women’s political representation (Hughes 2009; Hughes and Tripp 2015). Yet others present war and invasions perpetrated by Western powers against Muslim-majority countries as akin to a “moral crusade”, albeit a highly misguided one, to save oppressed Muslim women, with the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan often cited as an example (Abu Lughod 2002). These arguments have merit, but the Afghanistan story is more complex and tragic.

The American involvement in Afghanistan did not begin in 2001. Nor was it about “saving Muslim women”. The U.S. invasion in October 2001 – supported by NATO allies – was in retaliation for the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda fighters, who had been implicated in the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.  “Saving Afghan women and girls” was used as a fig leaf to soften the image of the world-system’s hegemon attacking and occupying an underdeveloped peripheral country. It is true that Afghan women who had received education and work experience in the 1970s and 1980s despised the Taliban, and many welcomed its political demise. After all, the Taliban had come rampaging into Afghanistan in 1994 from the refugee camps in Pakistan, initially to clean up the appalling conditions under the U.S.-supported tribal-Islamist Mujahideen, only to institute a gendered reign of terror. Their record included the torture and execution of the former president, Dr. Najibullah, in 1996, and the denial of schooling, employment, and public space for women and girls (Moghadam 1993, 2003, ch. 7).   

In the past 20 years, some progress for women and girls was made in the large cities, but this was essentially a return to the trajectory that the modernizing, left-wing governments of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) under the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) had established in the late 1970s.  Indeed, what the PDPA tried to institute in the years after it came to power in April 1978 is worth recalling: land reform and redistribution, free and compulsory schooling, rights for women, and equality for all ethnic groups, including the oppressed Shia Hazara (Halliday 1978).The DRA’s program included elements that had already been achieved in neighboring Iran, and much earlier, albeit under a state system that had been strong and centralized (and richer) for much longer (Karshenas 1990).  The socialist experiment, however, was quickly opposed by the Carter administration, as later admitted in a French magazine interview by Carter’s national security advisor and ardent anti-communist Zbigniew Brzezinski. What began as covert action to lure the Soviets into a Vietnam-style quagmire escalated into overt military support for the Mujahideen – many of whose leaders and combatants opposed girls’ schooling.

The abject manner in which the U.S. government abandoned Afghanistan in August 2021, leaving behind equipment (and rubbish) and rendering countless Afghans vulnerable to extremists, echoes the abrupt abandonment, in early 1992, after the collapse of the DRA. Note that the 1992 collapse occurred over three years after the departure of the last Soviet troops, whereas the U.S.-supported government collapsed in August 2021 even before the U.S. troops exited. One is reminded of Marx’s sardonic comment about the Eighteenth Brumaire: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Rhetoric about women’s rights, democracy, and human rights notwithstanding, it is raison d’état that generates wars, occupations, coups, and destabilization of states.  The 1953 and 1954 coups in Iran and Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, the American war in Vietnam, the contra war in Nicaragua, the support of the tribal-Islamist Mujahideen in Afghanistan, the destabilization of the Libyan and Syrian states following the 2011 protests – all reflect the unfortunate realities of an unequal and hierarchical capitalist world-system. Rather than liberate women and girls, such forms of geopolitics exacerbate existing vulnerabilities or create new ones, generate cultural backlashes or fierce resistance movements, and set back economic, social, and political development.

Despite their anti-Western stance, the Taliban, like many Islamist movements, should not be considered anti-systemic, as they are fundamentally different from progressive social movements (Moghadam 2012).  Moreover, the conversion of the erstwhile Ministry of Women’s Affairs into the office for the “propagation of virtue and prohibition of vice” is clearly a patriarchal regression. As for the U.S., the “blood and treasure” dispensed over 20 years and four administrations,[1] along with the futile cooperation of NATO allies, confirms that the contemporary capitalist world-system is in historic decline, as is its hegemon (Chase-Dunn and Roberts 2012; Friedman and Chase-Dunn 2005; Wallerstein 2003).

Valentine M. Moghadam is a Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Northeastern University.

[1] For a detailed analysis of spending, see Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Jan. 30, 2021), esp. pp. 26-40, A Feb. 2020 Congressional hearing on the Afghanistan Papers, a Washington Post exposé of waste, lies, and ignorance, is available at and includes a devastating testimony by the SIGAR’s John Sopko. See also Jeffrey Sachs, “Blood in the Sand” (Aug 17, 2021),


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