The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam by Akbar Ahmed, ISBN-13: 978-0815723783, Brookings Institution Press, 2013, 424 pp. $31.75 (list).
Since George W. Bush announced a Global War on Terror over a decade ago in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the twin towers in New York, the United States has been relentless in its pursuit of the al Qaida perpetrators of those attacks. It has mobilized a vast global coalition to fight Islamic jihadists. It has launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and employed increasingly sophisticated drone technologies against “terrorist” groups in other parts of the Muslim world, notably in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. There is every prospect that these same technologies will soon be used in sub-Saharan Africa against Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and perhaps in other parts of the world were terrorist violence may erupt.
Akbar Ahmed’s new book takes a new and fascinating look at these wars from the perspective of a former diplomat (Pakistani High Commissioner in London), Cambridge educated anthropologist and administrator in the tribal territories of Pakistan. He has identified a disturbing pattern behind the use of drones against tribal societies (the thistles of his book’s title) and has concluded that there is a sinister and dangerous pattern to this violence, which pits central governments against their tribal peripheries. The book is a devastating and relentless critique of U. S. Government policies. He makes abundantly clear that America has engaged in this global effort with almost no understanding of the dynamics of tribal societies or of the likely consequences of apparently indiscriminate attacks against them. He notes that for their own purposes governments such as China and India have joined in this battle against terrorism in part in order to justify repressive policies against their own tribal peripheries.
The book reflects an anthropologist’s fascination with tribalism and the possibility that many tribal societies will be destroyed or undermined under the general pressures of globalization, a process exacerbated in Professor Ahmed’s view by the American use of drones against many of those same societies. The book is a breathtakingly broad overview of the emergence of tribal societies over the past three hundred years. He paints a detailed and compelling portrait of tribal struggles in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The Kurds, Chechens of Russia, Uighurs of China, Acehans of Indonesia, and the Rohingya of Burma are among the many groups described and placed in their current political relationship to their respective national centers. The groups that he describes range from relatively small Yemeni tribes to others who resemble modern national states (the Kurds, for example) He outlines five different model of relationships between centers and peripheries. This taxonomy provides a very useful frame of reference for understanding the different types of relationships that exist. In terms of these models Professor Ahmed has a primary interest in segmentary tribal lineage systems, with particular reference to the Baluch and the Pushtuns, which he studied and worked with in his earlier career. He is on strongest ground in his writing about the tribal peoples of Pakistan, using his own experience as an administrator in Waziristan to elucidate tribal values, of which loyalty is the foremost.
His emotional attachment to tribal societies is evident. He regards their likely disappearance under the pressures of globalization and great power (notably U.S.) pressure as deplorable, although he recognizes that many may have little recourse but to bow to the centralizing priorities of powerful and technologically adept central governments. His book makes an appeal to the conscience and the practical politics of the international community, calling on it to preserve these groups in federal structures which would provide political autonomy and allow them to maintain their culture, language and traditions without contamination by the modern secular world. Some of his language in defense of these societies may seem excessively tolerant of their structures and patriarchal structures. He somewhat undercuts the force of his argument when he puts these endangered human societies together with polar bears and coral reefs. His appeals for tribal preservation often sound nostalgic rather than realistic.
Professor Ahmed is at his most eloquent in identifying the tragedies and brutal violence against women in many parts of the tribal world. In an emotional final section of the book, Professor Ahmed compares what is happening to Muslim tribal societies to the Holocaust, implying a degree of intentionality on the part of central governments, the United States in particular. He seems to attribute to them an almost Hitlerian desire to eliminate those peoples and cultures for which it has disdain, as evidenced by burnings of the Koran or urinating on dead bodies. He argues that these are examples of the “endless” American disregard of the values of the societies in which the United States has been fighting and of its total lack of understanding of those societies’ values.
Professor Ahmed is implicitly highly critical of the general concept of a war on terrorism. He regards drone and other attacks as systematic violations of fundamental human rights rather than as legitimate acts of war. In this debate Dr. Ahmed takes the moral high ground, deploring the use of the instruments of war and the associated collateral violation of basic human rights. He appeals for a more compassionate and morally grounded use of American power and for greater sensitivity in the way in which the United States interacts with other cultures. On this point it is hard to disagree.
Professor Ahmed, who is currently the Ibn Khaldun Professor of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, has a tendency to state his case with unnecessary hyperbole. For him, America‘s war against terrorism is a ‘bottomless pit”, costing trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. He characterizes the conduct of that war “as the mediocre leading the confused in pursuit of the dubious.”
He sees America as a country, which has had a precipitous rise to hegemonic power in the 1990s, but which now faces an ”equally precipitous decline into a nation plagued by massive debt, unemployment, uncertainly and unending overseas wars”. These are generalizations, which cry out for greater nuance and explanation. He correctly faults the United States for its lack of knowledge about tribal regions and peoples. We do not speak their languages; we do not understand their culture; we tend to disparage and disdain these groups as primitive, undemocratic, outmoded societies. However, it is hard to agree that America is the primary source of the violence against tribal peoples or the principal agent of their destruction.
Overall this book breaks much new ground and brings into focus a set of highly controversial American government policies involving the use of drones and the concomitant violation of democratic due process. Using analytical skills of a trained anthropologist and administrator Professor Ahmed introduces the reader to a vast and complex world of tribal politics. He is on very strong ground in his analysis of the dynamics of patriarchal tribal societies, their codes of conduct, and their traditions of loyalty. We have much to learn in this regard. This is a book that deserves to be widely read and its conclusions vigorously debated.