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Lessons of History: States, Peoples, Soil

In a recent column in The Guardian, British Major-General Jonathan Shaw explored lessons to be learned from "well-meaning but misguided" Western military efforts in Afghanistan. Shaw asked a question perplexing many commentators: How can "the Taliban [be] reemerging after all the violence that has been brought to bear against it since 2011?"

Shaw approached the question from experience. He was commander of allied forces in Basra in 2007 and now chairman of Optima Group, "a global provider of counter-improvised explosive device (C-IED) and search capabilities."

Shaw's answer to the question went well beyond standard media comment and looked at root issues. "Our incomprehension about current events," Shaw said, "is fuelled by our ignorance of the culture, the political soil of Afghanistan (and of Syria, Libya and Iraq)."

But, Shaw added, the ignorance goes deeper and lies closer to home: ignorance of foreign cultures "starts with an ignorance about the fragility and the contingent nature of our own systems." In other words, those who are perplexed about Afghanistan and the Taliban—not to mention the Islamic State and other groups—don't understand either the "foreign" cultures or their own.

With Shaw's critique in mind, let's look at the rhetoric of the current American presidential primary campaigns, where several candidates are calling to promote "democracy" by bombing and invading other countries.

Neocon candidates try to outdo one another with demands for military force wherever they perceive it will appeal to voter fears, whether Iran or Iraq, Afghanistan or Russia, Syria or Libya. Ignorance of the histories of these countries doesn't get in the way of—even encourages—their calls for intervention.

But, as Shaw said, "Unless and until we understand the conflict we are looking at, we would be well advised to follow the Hippocratic oath to 'do no harm'." Shaw added, "Liberal democracy is a rare flower…the form of which differs even in its heartland of western Europe/America." He criticized the "neocon belief that [liberal democracy] is the natural condition for society."

Shaw looked at the history of western "state" government. He said, "We have lost sight of how the very concept of the 'state' is a western construct, enshrined in the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to bring to an end the 30 years war in Europe."

Though Shaw did not discuss American Indian history, his recap of the history of 'state' systems illuminates the difficulties of using the notion of 'sovereignty' to describe American Indian self-determination. The notion of 'sovereignty' derives from the Westphalian idea of government as a top-down, unitary 'state' structure. Indian Nations never followed that model.

The "state" model of government may have solved problems among warring Christian European nations, but that form has also been used to undermine traditional Indigenous governments and impose neo-colonial governments on non-state peoples. The American 'state' deployed military and economic coercion to force Indians within the 'reservation' system, subject to over-arching 'state' sovereignty.

Shaw pointed to resistance to state boundaries in the Middle East: "In Syria, Libya and Afghanistan this notion [of 'state'] is under threat as warlords and insurgents vie for local power, ignoring our state boundaries."

Shaw did not explain the "our" in his phrase. It points to another historical agreement among Western European nations: The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement—named after the British and French diplomats who put it together at the end of World War I.

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Sykes-Picot emerged from secret negotiations between Britain and France (with Russia's consent) to divide Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire after the War. The negotiations created a map of "state boundaries" for Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan. These boundaries defined "spheres of influence" for British and French colonial projects. From the perspective of the colonists, the boundaries of those countries are "ours."

Ignorance of this colonial history in the Middle East underlies the surprise of observers—including candidates for the American presidency—who cannot comprehend where the Islamic State, the Taliban, and other quasi-governmental "terrorist groups" come from. They come from peoples whose own boundaries were ignored or violated by colonial states.

The participants in the current wars raging in the Mid-East have been fighting for a long time, among themselves, and with western colonial invaders and "patrons." The battle lines in the Mid-East are not new, only newly inflamed. But to understand this, one needs to know history. Therein lies the rub.

In America, people are legally entitled to voice an opinion about anything, without necessarily knowing anything. In fact, knowing something may actually get in the way of stating an opinion. This includes not only "foreign affairs," but also "domestic issues."

For example, listening to the presidential primary campaigns, one might believe Christianity was crucial to the oath of office.

The Constitution actually says religion has no role as a qualification for office. Here's Article Six: "The Senators and Representatives…and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

What does the existence of widespread, complete misunderstanding of the Constitution and religion say about the prospects for American society? How can democracy function when gross ignorance of history and law masquerades as legitimate political discourse? It doesn't look promising.

The presidential primaries provide a window into the ongoing struggle for political dominance in the American state. With the exception of Bernie Sanders, the campaigns have so far provided little help for understanding domination itself.

By asking questions about the histories that shape our present circumstances, we may come to appreciate the value of studying history at all. Seeing the "contingent nature" of government helps us see the "fragility" of human society. Appreciating contingency and fragility can help us make skillful choices as we lay down a past for the future—for our children and grandchildren.

Shaw urges us to pay attention to "cultural soil." He says the "relevant portrayal" of Afghanistan today might be to see the Afghans "sorting out their own future, as they always were going to once we had stopped imposing ourselves; the Afghan soil reasserting itself."

Those words remind me of Luther Standing Bear, who said, "The American Indian is of the soil, whether it be the region of forests, plains, pueblos, or mesas. He fits into the landscape, for the hand that fashioned the continent also fashioned the man for his surroundings. He once grew as naturally as the wild sunflowers, he belongs just as the buffalo belonged...."

We can conclude as Shaw did, that the legacy of colonial violence "should, at least, not surprise us. At best, [it] should not happen again."

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.