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Afghans Are Not Kurds: Will They Become Vietnam?

"July 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam. Once enemies, the two countries have now become strategic and economic partners. Amid the US – China trade tensions since mid-2018, Vietnam’s importance to the US’s economy has been rising, especially as an alternative for supply from China."

Vietnam is back in the news. As the American withdrawal from Afghanistan nears its end, images from Vietnam flood the media. Again and again, people compare and contrast what is occurring today with what happened 46 years ago.

On some level such comparisons are natural. It is easy to compare similar scenes of American planes and desperate locals seeking to escape in the two countries decades apart. While a picture is worth one thousand words it still may not tell the full story. One hopes that at some point we go beyond the gotcha games of the politicians and the media seeking political advantage from what is unfolding before their eyes. We should not confuse the moment in time of snap shot with the story in time of a movie.

VIETNAM 1975-2021  

Since Vietnam is cited so frequently, let’s begin with it. The Vietnam War was a one of great destruction and costs in Vietnam, through Southeast Asia, and in the United States. In some ways this country is still paying the price for the divisions which exploded across the American cultural landscape. They continue to divide us.

Putting our cultural issues aside, Vietnam routinely is considered a lost war. After years of brutal effort, the attempt to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnam failed. In response, we fled the country. End of story.

Not quite. Where is Vietnam today? Back then, the country was caught up in the Cold War. Our view of the events there were seen through the prism of that conflict. Now the Cold War is over. We won that war, a far more important war than the one in Vietnam. But while the Soviet Union no longer is a threat, Russia is. In other words, once the Communist prism was removed, the country of Russia remained. Our conflict with Russia today is not based on ideology. It springs from good old-fashioned national rivalries.

Similarly, once the Communist prism was removed from Vietnam, we began to see it as a country rather than as part of some global foe. Vietnam as a country has its own history. The country has no interest in being a vassal of China. It has no interest in being part of the Chinese Empire. It is quite open to partnering with the United States in manufacturing. Technically, Vietnam may not be an official ally like Germany and Japan, but certainly in the scheme of things our relations with the country are good.

Consider then what happened in the lifetime of John McCain. He was held captive in North Vietnam and beaten for years. He lived the rest of his life with the partially broken body North Vietnam had created. Then Vietnam became a tourist destination for Americans. How was that possible? Vietnam no longer was a foe. Times changed. The iconic photograph from 1975 fails to tell the story of what has happened since then.


Nation building is not easy. As we prepare to celebrate the 250th anniversary of our own birth as a country we should keep our own experience in mind. Our first attempt in the Articles of Confederation failed. There were rebellions which required the leadership of George Washington to quell. For decades people then talked about nullification and succession. Then it happened in a terrible Civil War. We know that we are not a unified country now. I will not go into the details of that division here except to note that nation building is a work in progress as the Founding Fathers of this country well knew.

We have the right to point with pride at the successes of England and Germany post-WWII and South Korea post-Korean War. Certainly we do not deserve all the credit but we can claim to have contributed to their successes. One thing all three countries have in common is that “there was a there there.” We were not starting from scratch. After all, in 1776, some of the colonies here already had over a century of experience in self-government.

The more there is a “there there,” the easier it is to nation build. The Kurds, for example, possess a strong sense of identity and cohesiveness. One practical result is that funding is less subject to the level of corruption as in nations that exist only on paper. The Kurds choose for practical reasons not to declare their independence from Iraq. However such deference should not obscure the facts on the ground of them operating much like an independent country.

The same cannot be said for Iraq, or for Libya and Syria. All three were colonial creations. They had no prior existence as countries except as lines on a map for administrative purposes. In this regard they are similar to many African countries such as in Sudan/South Sudan/Eritrea/Ethiopia. In America, all these people from all these countries are lumped together as people of color. That hardly is a useful description. Many peoples of different ethnicities, religions, and races are involved. What held these Arab countries together was brute force. Once that force was removed, it was Krakatoa, east of Java. The problem with putting these Humpties together again is that they were never together in the first place.

Afghanistan with its multiple ethnicities leans more towards these models than towards Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the Kurds. I am not knowledgeable to speak about Afghan history prior to separate from the British, the Russian, and the American involvement in the country. Suffice it to say there was a person called a king who emerged from tribal assemblies as the ruler. At this point that probably is not much of starting point for building a country.


The Taliban have decisions to make. There is no way to know what they will be now or in the years to go. The Taliban are like the proverbial dog running after a car. The chase is over. Now what?

On an immediate level, there are questions of food, water, electricity, finance, cell phone and internet access, and health care especially given the coronavirus.

The Taliban like Vietnam will have to make a decision about China. China wants to include Afghanistan in its global transportation and trade network. It also does not want Moslem militancy to spread into China. How willing will the Taliban be to be subservient to China and to abandon its values?

What of ISIS? It already is in conflict with this “purer” Moslem group. How much of a conflict will it become?

What about Iran, India, Pakistan and the other “Stans”?

How much are the Taliban a Pashtun-based entity?

Will Pakistan remain a single country?

I raise these questions simply to point out that now that the war is over, other issues will come to the fore. How they will be resolved or even addressed remains to be seen. Just as communism no longer defines our relationship with Vietnam so 9/11 will not continue to define our relationship with the Taliban. The current withdrawal by the United States is a phase in a story that is not yet over just as it was not over in 1975 in Vietnam.

Biden Becomes America’s Second Indigenous President: Who Knew?

Plantations In Ireland Due to English Settler Colonialism (Wikipedia)

Joe Biden has become America’s second Indigenous President. John Kennedy was the first. Who knew?

It turns out based on the definition of “Indigenous” as an academic construct both the Irish and the Jews are Indigenous.

No general, internationally accepted definition of indigenous peoples exists. It is typical of indigenous populations that they do not represent the dominant population in the larger society of which they are part, although they may be the population group that inhabited the area first.

These “Indigenous” people also may compose the majority of the population in a given political entity as long as they are in a subordinate position. The critical component is the presence of a dominant population. Without a dominant population having victimized a weaker people, there effectively is no “Indigenous” people.

Part of the confusion over the meaning of the term occurs due to the different ways in which “Indigenous” is used. First of all, it does not mean “indigenous.” People who are labelled “Indigenous” do not necessarily live on their ancestral homeland. There is no correlation between being an “Indigenous” people in the politically-correct sense and being ‘indigenous” in the traditional sense of local or native.  However, in the popular usage, “Indigenous” means “we were here before the dominant people came here and victimized us” including when the “here” means being displaced to somewhere else.

A second issue with “Indigenous” is with the academic construct itself.  In the article “Settler Colonial Prehistories in Seventeenth-Century Century North America” (William and Mary Quarterly 76 2019), Susanah Shaw Romney notes that the related term “settler colonialism” remains a scholarly concept most widely used for the post-1800 English-speaking world. Shaw cautions Americanists to take heed of how scholars in distant fields use the term as will be shown below. She also cautions that terms may be applied when they are inappropriate such as with the seventeenth-century Dutch in New York, her own area of scholarship. This overuse problem with the application of the term will be addressed in a forthcoming blog. In the previous blog and this one, the issue is the underuse of the terms and not the overuse.

One byproduct revealed here is the frequent limitation of the application of “Indigenous” to being directed against white people, most notably English and American. This results in the undermining of the academic construct although not in the popular usage. As shown in the previous blog, Bantu settler colonialism against other people in Africa which occurred without any involvement of white people tends to be overlooked in Indigenous studies as not being relevant. In this blog, the same situation occurs in the Middle East and Europe further rendering that academic construct suspect due to its restricted application.


On October 25, I was viewing the Indigenous History Conference. When the session ended, I zoomed over to another conference, this one entitled “The Land that I Will Show You” Recent Archaeological & Historical Studies of Ancient Israel hosted by NYU. Notice how one conference includes the name of the people and the other does not. The speaker at the second conference when I zoomed was Yifat Thareani, New York University Tel Aviv, Hebrew Union College. She is an Israeli archaeologist. Her topic was “In Praise of the Conquered: Identity Making in Israel and Judah in the Face of Assyrian Rule.”

I missed the beginning of her presentation, but when I began listening partway through, I heard her say she was talking about Israelites as an indigenous people suffering from settler colonialism. The very same terms used in the Indigenous Conference were being used in the Ancient Israel Conference only this time they involved ancient Assyria and Israel and not Americans and Indians.

If you are not familiar with the situation, here is what happened. In 722/721 BCE, Assyria destroyed the kingdom of Israel. The defeated Israelites then endured three fates:

1. One group was taken captive to Assyria, the so-called 10 Lost Tribes, with part of that group, particularly the chariot force, being incorporated into the Assyrian army.
2. A second group fled the country and became refugees in Judah.
3. The third Israelite group remained on the land in Israel as a remnant people or Indigenous.

After the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, the refugee group and the Judeans went through their own division into exile in the Diaspora, refugees such as to Egypt, or remaining on the land. In fact the biblical term for the remnant population is “people of the land,” a very Indigenous-sounding designation.

The Assyrians not only moved people out of the country conquered, they also move replacement settlers into the now depopulated country as part of their settler colonialism policy. In 716 BCE, the relocated people into the former kingdom of Israel included Arabs. In the archaeological record, this 716 BCE forced settlement is the first known instance of the Arab people living in what would later be called Palestine named after the non-Semitic Philistine people.

What happened to this mix of Indigenous Israelite people and the resettled peoples including the Arabs? Best guess is that they intermarried and became known later as Samaritans. These Samaritans continue to live on the land to this very day as a small remnant population.

People probably are more familiar with the Arab settler colonialism which occurred 1400 years later in the 7th century AD. That settler colonialism occurred throughout the Middle East from modern Iraq to Morocco. In its wake various remnant populations have survived struggling to maintain their language and culture. They include the following peoples who trace their presence in the land to prior to Arab settler colonialism although there has been intermarriage:

Palestinian Samaritans
Palestinian Jews
Palestinian Christians
Lebanese Christians
Iraqi Assyrians (Christians)
Egyptian Copts

In a print-article entitled “The Trap of Loyalty” on the Syrian Alawites, Robert F. Worth of the New York Times quotes two people he interviewed as follows:

“We are Mesopotamian, not Arabic. We don’t want to be Arabic.”
“It’s like your riots in Detroit in 1967. They [the Syrian rebels] are like losers ⸺ not good people. Like blacks in the U.S.A.”

These rebels referred to as “barbarians” were mainly the Sunni people who were leading the rebellion. It’s astonishing to witness when the eyes of the world are upon us, what exactly they see and remember. It also is a reminder that the putdown of the “other” as “savages” is not limited to white people and Indians as will be shown again below when the subject turns to the Celtic people.

Arab settler colonialism like Bantu settler colonialism falls outside the normal purview of Indigenous studies as a politically-correct doctrine but within the purview of Indigenous studies as an academic discipline.


When the scene shifts to Europe, one finds the same dilemma – how to reconcile Indigenous studies as a politically-correct doctrine versus developing it into academic discipline where white people can be both the victim and the perpetrator of settler colonialism.

Shortly after I read the “Exchange” in the journal of the American Historical Association which initiated this thread of blogs, I read an article in Archaeology, the magazine of the Archaeological Institute of America (I am president of the Westchester NY chapter) entitled “Resisting Rome: How a Celtic tribe fought to defend their Iberian homeland against the emperor’s legions.”

The article was about an archaeological excavation of a site that had resisted Rome and then was destroyed. The Cantabrian people were described by Roman writers as “savage, uncivilized, and overwhelming belligerent in nature.” In other words, they were depicted in the standard terms people have been using for thousands of years to denigrate the proverbial “Other.” This terminology has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or any other characteristic except that the people are the enemy other and are shown as subhuman.

The Hun versus Lady Liberty (Recruiting Poster

This famous recruiting poster from World War I shows the German Huns as barbarians of the first order in response to the atrocities they committed in Belgium. In the world at large, Indians were not first or only people to be called savages.

The victimization of the Celtic people first by Rome and then by the English falls within the guidelines for “Indigenous” people. One may observe the English royal plantations established in Ireland in the map above. This colonization including the area now known as Northern Island fits the definition. One critical difference between Israel and Ireland and the American Indian peoples is that the first two now are independent political entities whereas the third have reservations.

Here we may observe the challenge facing Indigenous studies with settler colonialism. Is its primary purpose to be an academic discipline where it can be applied globally in both the past and present to all peoples of the earth? Or is its primary purpose to be a weapon in the culture wars deployed against white people especially Americans and English? Is it possible for (some) scholars to prefer the former while (some) scholars and woke general public to prefer the other?

This issue came to a crux in the Exchange in the journal of the American Historical Association that started this thread. In a review of the book Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War by Lisa Brooks, reviewer David Silverman commented on her “speculative demonizations of the English” in contrast to her downplaying of intra-Indian violence [for the treatment of violence see the blog Violence and Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS)]. In an academic context, Silverman well may be right in his observation but in a politically-correct context he is exactly wrong. As a warrior in the culture wars, Brooks did what she is supposed to do. She even garnered acclaimed for her prowess as a warrior in defending her people and castigating the enemy white people.

Oh, you think I have crossed some line here, do you? Then take Columbus Day. Suppose you decide to topple his statue and rename the day. What name would you use? Would you call it “Indian Heritage Day”? No! Of course not! But why not? Indians are the people whose heritage is being celebrated. They don’t object to the term. They were called that for centuries. Why erase it? Why “Disappear” the Indian?

The answer is simple. How many white people would rally to the cause on behalf of “Indian Heritage Day”? Try “Zero.” Indian is a name. It has no moral connotations. It exists independently of any other people. By contrast, Indigenous is not a name but a part of a relationship. It takes two. There were no Indigenous people in what became the United States before the arrival of white people according to the definition. To be Indigenous requires a dominant people who victimized you. You can be an Indian before the arrival of the white people but you can’t become Indigenous until after they do.

To be Indigenous implies that you were here first which means another people came here second. It means the land belongs to you, and that white people need to repent America’s second original sin. White people will rally to that call. White people have rallied to that cause of the Indigenous in a way they would not for Indians. At least some white people have. For others that call is a mircroaggression that alienates them from wanting to consider the legitimate concerns of the Indian people. So what. Who cares what they think. Those “Other” people are backward.