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Miss the Middle Ages? Try Afghanistan

The political model that best illustrates the philosophy and practice of the Afghan government is a medieval court.

October 16, 2010|By Nancy Goldstone

As a person who spends her time immersed in the Middle Ages, I would ordinarily be the first to point out how irrelevant this pastime is to modern society. There is very little reason to tweet or blog about people who have been dead for 600 years. However, the recent revelation that large numbers of President Hamid Karzai's relations have taken over positions of power in Afghanistan has encouraged me to believe that, for once, my preoccupation might be pertinent. For some time now, it has been obvious to me that the political model that best illustrates the philosophy and practice of the Afghan government is a medieval court.

For those unfamiliar with the customs of the 15th century, medieval courts were composed of the extended family, senior counselors, household servants, intimate friends and assorted hangers-on who surrounded the king and queen. There was a good deal of backbiting, rivalry and jostling for position as people fell in and out of favor, but in general these were the individuals who made policy and ruled the kingdom. The king rewarded those members of his court with whom he was especially pleased with gifts of money and territory. Royal siblings and their families were particularly useful, as they were perceived by the subjects of the realm as extensions of the monarch himself. The more money and territory a sibling or courtier accumulated, the greater that person's power and influence. Is any of this beginning to sound familiar?

The methods and practices of medieval courts were certainly far removed from those Americans most cherish, such as voting, representation and protection of civil rights. Imposing a Western-style democracy on such a system is unfortunately similar to coating an unhusked coconut with chocolate and trying to pass it off as a Mounds bar.

Consequently, the most useful parallel to the American involvement in Afghanistan is not, as is so often cited, the Iraqi "surge," or the failed campaign by the Russians, or even the lessons of Vietnam but, rather, the experience of England in the second half of the Hundred Years War. And I'm afraid that the English lost that one.

In 1415, Henry V — he of the "We few, we happy few" speech — employing high-tech, state-of-the-art weaponry, the longbow, walloped the French at Agincourt. Within a few years, the English occupied Paris and much of western France. Henry V appropriated the French throne, thereby dispossessing the dauphin, the rightful heir, who was forced to concede the capital. Although the formidable Henry would die soon after, he was replaced by his extremely competent brother, the duke of Bedford, who continued to rule France as regent. This series of events is eerily similar to what happened when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan, occupied Kabul and forced the Taliban into the countryside.

The dauphin, exiled from Paris, held that part of the realm south of the Loire, just as today the Taliban exercises power over various enclaves outside the capital. The English vowed to eject him and, with the help of the duke of Burgundy, an estranged member of the French royal family, managed to win a number of battles against the dauphin. But — and this is crucial — the duke of Burgundy expected to be paid for his participation in the war.

The conflict dragged on, becoming more and more costly, and eventually the English got tired of bribing the duke of Burgundy. The duke was naturally disappointed with this development and, unbeknownst to England, looked to sell his services elsewhere. Ambassadors from the duke's court met surreptitiously with ambassadors from the dauphin's court. This was not difficult to arrange, as some medieval families, hedging their bets, had relatives placed in both courts — just as today, for similar reasons, some Afghan households maintain ties to both the Taliban and the U.S.-supported government.

The result of these secret meetings was that the dauphin made discreet financial overtures and succeeded in separating the duke of Burgundy from his former allies. England was dumbfounded to find itself isolated, and subsequently lost the war. As an occupying force, it didn't matter how many troops it put in the field. Without the support of the duke of Burgundy, there were never enough English soldiers to hold the kingdom.

On Monday, Karzai confirmed to CNN what had been long rumored: "We have been talking to the Taliban as countrymen to countrymen. Unofficial talks have been held with Taliban representatives over an extended period." On Thursday White House and NATO officials said that the U.S. had aided these discussions in the hope of promoting a negotiated peace.

But the real deal — the one that won't be announced — will likely follow the Hundred Years War model. Karzai will continue to hold the capital, with the Taliban and other warlords in control of the rest of the countryside. The Taliban will turn a blind eye to a certain percentage of opium trafficking, the proceeds of which will go to Karzai and his family and a few favored courtiers. Then, in three to five years, Karzai and his supporters will go off to a comfortable retirement and the Taliban will ride into Kabul.

Nancy Goldstone is the author, most recently, of "The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I." Her next book, about Joan of Arc, will be published in 2012.

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