A Washington Post columnist, Max Boot, recently argued for a long-term American military presence in Syria and Afghanistan on the basis that, “These kinds of deployments are invariably lengthy and frustrating. Think of our Indian Wars, which lasted roughly 300 years (circa 1600-1890), or the British deployment on the North West Frontier (today’s Pakistan-Afghanistan border), which lasted 100 years (1840s-1940s). U.S. troops are not undertaking a conventional combat assignment. They are policing the frontiers of the Pax Americana.”
To set aside British policies in South Asia for the moment, do the so-called Indian Wars hold any lessons for U.S. military efforts in Syria and Afghanistan? Boot would not be the first to say so. But in most ways, I would argue that they do not. There are three good reasons (if not more) to reject any link between the Indian Wars and modern counterinsurgency campaigns, but I would add that there is at least one thing policy-makers might usefully draw from this history. More on that later. (I pause here to note that I write as a non-Indigenous scholar, but these wars are the focus of my doctoral research. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers have used the term 'Indian Wars' to describe the long-running series of militarized disputes between the U.S. and Indigenous peoples of North America even though these conflicts varied in scale, immediate cause, nations involved, and so on.)
Let’s begin with all the reasons the Indian Wars might make for a poor analogy. For starters, Boot’s factual description of them is unconventional and imprecise. If we want to focus on engagements specific to an independent United States, we should start around 1783 rather than 1600, and although 1890 is indeed a frequently-cited end date, one should acknowledge that this is framed by the scores of noncombatant Lakota that U.S. soldiers killed at Wounded Knee Creek. Moreover, Boot insinuates that the United States was engaged in one long campaign throughout his selected timeframe—as if 'the Indian Wars' is analogous to 'the war in Afghanistan'. The 1890 Census, however, more accurately portrays the Indian Wars as sporadic conflicts (amounting to between 40 and 50 separate ones) arising in disparate locations due to discrete incidents or disputes.
Furthermore, many early U.S. political elites saw wars with Indigenous nations as expensive and unwise, with their stated goal more frequently being a sort of assimilation that would bring Protestant traditions and agrarian habits—'civilization,' in the wording of the day—to the tribes of North America. Rather than elites, it was thus settlers who often provoked these wars. The circumstances varied—sometimes settlers directly attacked Indigenous populations, while at times the more indirect competition for scarce resources or apparently genuine misunderstandings led to conflict. Here we have an altogether different process of conflict initiation than we see in Afghanistan and Syria and a radically different form of public participation in war.
Finally, the goal of the federal government in the Indian Wars—even when they entered conflicts that had only been started by settlers—was fundamentally about access to land and natural resources. Some elites were indeed reluctant to get involved in costly Indian Wars, but not all officials shared this hesitance. Even when they avoided outright war, they pursued policies such as 'Indian removal,' the sort of policies that we would today call ethnic cleansing or even genocide, all for the sake of territorial expansion. Unless proponents of a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Syria are advocating for eventual annexation, they would seem to have quite different goals than earlier elites, and such colonial innuendo can only hurt their cause.
Given all these stark differences, it may be best to address Afghanistan and Syria without reference to the Indian Wars. But there is at least one useful thing policy-makers could glean from closer study of the Indian Wars: militias are rarely helpful. The United States was reluctant to embrace a large standing army for much of its history because many political elites believed that a large military would threaten American democracy and that local militias would generally suffice to police the frontier. Militias, however, were often far less effective than the more professionalized military, and early disputes with Indigenous groups attested to that. Beyond their poor performance, militias also had more incentive to start fights than the military—after all, these localized groups were composed of settlers who moved west to claim land for themselves. There are similar reasons to believe that today’s proposals to increase the use of militias—'private military contractors' in modern parlance—would only harm American efforts in Syria and Afghanistan, not to mention civilians in those countries. If the United States is to maintain a military presence anywhere, it ought to do so with the highest possible degree of efficacy and public accountability—that is, it ought to rely on the military and its civilian leaders.
The Indian Wars, in short, do not offer any justification for lengthy counterinsurgency campaigns in Syria, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. These conflicts were substantively different in character and, to put it charitably, they were of dubious legitimacy. If today’s foreign policy thinkers must use the Indian Wars to inform U.S. conduct in Syria and Afghanistan, perhaps the best lesson to learn would be that public interests ought not to be blithely placed in private hands.
Andrew A. Szarejko is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. His research focuses on the origins of militarized disputed between the United States and American Indian groups, a topic through which he explores U.S. foreign policy more broadly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at twitter.com/szarejko.