Thomas Barfield: Yes, Afghanistan is Medieval

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Thomas Barfield is a professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, released in April.]

In July 1973, Afghanistan's King Mohammed Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin Daud, who then abolished the monarchy and declared himself the president of a republic. The New York Times sarcastically editorialized that Afghanistan had just "leaped into the sixteenth century." Radio reports soon brought news of this slight even to provincial northern Afghanistan, where I was working at the time. Daud's government in Kabul expressed its displeasure, but an Afghan friend familiar with the region's complex history saw it differently. "We may have acted hastily," he joked. "The 15th century was pretty good around here!" Indeed, the Timurid dynasty that had its capital in Herat during that period was internationally renowned for its fine arts, monumental architecture, classical poetry -- and effective governance.

I was reminded of this story last month when the Afghan government accused Britain's new defense minister, Liam Fox, of insulting Afghanistan by describing it as a "broken 13th-century country." One Afghan official told the London Times that Fox's comments "show a lack of trust" and prove that Britain is a "colonial, orientalist, and racist country."

But Fox was hardly the first Westerner to reach for the medieval analogy when attempting to get a handle on Afghanistan. Something about Afghanistan conjures up the medieval period in the Western mind in an unreflective way, if only to express the idea that "they are not like us." For some it is a simple insult. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince declared that the Taliban were "barbarians" who "crawled out of the sewer" with "a 1200 A.D. mentality." (Given Prince's own fixation on the medieval Christian crusaders of the same era, perhaps the Taliban aren't the only ones with that mentality.) Yet in medieval Europe, where religion still played central role in culture and politics and state power was highly fragmented, isn't the worst analogy for understanding contemporary Afghanistan. And Europe's experience during this period might even provide some useful lessons for the country going forward....

The weakness of President Hamid Karzai that has led many journalists to dub him the "Mayor of Kabul" is little different structurally from those medieval European kings, who also held their capitals but did not rule their people. Similarly, Karzai's adoption of a patrimonial model of the state, in which offices and resources are redistributed on a personal basis to buy the support of existing power-holders or play them off against one another has more in common with the Holy Roman Empire than the European Union. In some ways, therefore, a thorough understanding of medieval power politics and how rulers came to centralize state authority would be of greater value to the international advisors sent to the Karzai government than a background in constitutional law or regulatory reform. At least in medieval Europe, the centralized state emerged victorious.

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