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by Harrison Akins

I would like to thank Ambassador Anthony Quainton, the distinguished Diplomat-in-Residence at American University’s School of International Service, for writing a review of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings 2013) by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University. Ambassador Ahmed, myself, and our entire team greatly admire and respect the career and the work of our colleague on campus and are grateful, above all, for his courtesy and friendship. Yet, as the senior researcher for The Thistle and the Drone, there are several points of clarification which I will make in my response to Ambassador Quainton’s review.

First, he seems to misunderstand the role of the drone in the study, mistaking this as a book primarily focused on America’s use of the weapon.  The book is not about the drone. It is about something much larger for which we are using the drone as a metaphor—the war on terror, which the drone is just one small part of, and, through that conflict, the current age of globalization.

From the American perspective, which is Ambassador Quainton’s almost sole perspective in his review, the study encompasses the entirety of the war on terror—its tactics, unexamined effects on the targeted communities, and the misperceptions of the enemy—and how this conflict has involved tribal societies, the metaphorical thistle, across the Muslim world. It is the encounter between the two, the metaphorical drone and thistle, that threatens the existence of the tribe and its culture, no less than, in a literary sense, that of polar bears and coral reefs. The undue and unwanted pressures and effects of globalization in this volatile world too often fall upon those least able to survive it.

Yet more importantly, in Ambassador Quainton’s reading of The Thistle and the Drone, he overlooked the core thesis of the book, that of the historical conflict between central governments and tribal peripheries. It is this dynamic, pre-dating 9/11 and American intervention, that drives much of the violence we are seeing across the Muslim world today that the West views as terrorism. His attribution of the argument to Ambassador Ahmed that America’s role in the war on terror is as “the primary source of the violence against tribal peoples or the principal agent of their destruction” disregards this reality. U.S. involvement, and the drone, is being introduced into already chaotic and violent landscapes. Ambassador Quainton writes, “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.” I would add to this list that the U.S misunderstood the history of tensions between these tribes and the often brutal central governments and the reasons why the groups of violence emerging from the tribes on the periphery would resort to violence.

After 9/11, the U.S., in its hunt for al Qaeda, looked to the “ungoverned spaces” of the periphery, areas which proved hospitable to bin Laden and others, as they clamored and even fought for their rights and identity. In this effort, the U.S. allied with the central government, who used U.S. military aid to bolster its own ability to squash the fiercely independent tribes.  While U.S. involvement over the past decade is exacerbating the violence, the war on terror is, however, driven by the conflict between the center and the periphery. The Thistle and the Drone lays out the entire historical arc of this conflict over the previous millennium, beginning with the coming of Islam and the age of the emirate and continuing through colonization into the modern state and the age of globalization. I would direct Ambassador Quainton to re-read Chapter 4. With such deep historical roots, the resolution of this conflict is ultimately in the hands and the interests of the central governments.

And I take umbrage, as an American working on the study, with Ambassador Quainton attributing to Ambassador Ahmed the argument that America above all possesses a “Hitlerian desire to eliminate those peoples and cultures for which it has disdain.” Ambassador Quainton, who states that Ambassador Ahmed “has a tendency to state his case with unnecessary hyperbole,” seems unaware of his own use of hyperbole. Far from attributing a “Hitlerian desire” to the United States, we are trying to demonstrate how the U.S. became mired in these tribal societies through misunderstanding, lack of knowledge, and by straying from the ideals of its own Founding Fathers. All of these have contributed to the various pressures on these tribal societies. All parties involved, the U.S., the central governments, and the groups of violence from the periphery, have blood on their hands. Ambassador Ahmed “has no favorites,” as Professor Julius Lipner of the University of Cambridge wrote of the study. Above all, it is the innocent people of the periphery who suffer the most. Ambassador Quainton mistakenly attributing this genocidal reference to the United States alone stems from his oversight of the center versus periphery thesis in his review.

The discussion of the Holocaust in the final chapter is a warning, and a reality, for many of the peripheral societies which we have written about. For some communities, genocide has happened, such as for the Circassians of the Caucasus, of which 1.5 million were killed by the Russian military in the 19th century. For others, genocide is a stark reality today, such as the Rohingya people of western Burma who are denied their existence by the central government. For the rest, it is a warning of what may come if the paradigm for dealing with the periphery is not shifted. They should treat the tribes with equal rights, dignity, and respect as other citizens of the country, while initiating education and development projects. The government should work with the traditional tribal and religious leadership, grant them the ability to practice local culture, and be given the rights to speak their own language.

The appeal to autonomy within a federal system is not based in an emotional attachment or nostalgia, as Ambassador Quainton writes, but an analysis of practical and successful efforts to bringing peace to tribal communities locked in conflict with the central government. Ambassador Quainton should take note of the examples of Aceh, Iraqi Kurdistan, the southern Philippines, and the Albanians of Macedonia and how peace, or the first steps toward peace, was achieved. When respect for their culture as equal citizens is ensured, the same respect and dignity granted to citizens in the federal system of the United States, the stability and unity of the entire nation is only strengthened and legitimized.

Ambassador Quainton seems to interpret this book as first and foremost a critique of United States foreign policy, and its ultimate message as somehow anti-American. This is dangerous demagoguery to label a book in such a way in the heated political environment today, whether intentional or not. The purpose of the study is not to be pro- or anti- but to bring these important issues into the public debate and help solve the problems facing our nation and other nations dealing with violence on their periphery. The current paradigm within which we are fighting terrorism is, in fact, only increasing the violence.

For a country which is experiencing such pain and misdirection in its declared war on terror, it is the duty of any well-wisher of the United States to try to resolve the crisis and lend their voice to establishing stability and peace. It is for this reason that Dr. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, called this study, “compulsory reading for Western governments,” Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote, “Akbar Ahmed gives us the only way out of this dangerous dilemma, a way to coexist with the thistle without the drone,” and Republican Congressman John J. Duncan of Tennessee stated, “The Thistle and the Drone gives us all pause to think about the future of drone warfare, the war on terror and the direction of our country, and I call it to the attention of my colleagues.”

I shall conclude with Ambassador Quainton’s own conclusion, “This is a book that deserves to be widely read and its conclusions vigorously debated.” And it is in this spirit of scholarly debate that I have penned this response.

Harrison Akins is the Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. He served as the senior researcher for The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings Press 2013) by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University.

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