Book Review: The Thistle and the Drone
By Malik Siraj Akbar
Since the killing of Al Qaeda leader and US citizen Anwar al-Aulaqi in a drone strike on September 30, 2011 in northern Yemen, the debate over the legality of drone strikes has gained momentum in the United States.
While the discussion in Washington still mainly revolves around the use of drones against US citizens, the program has also caused frequent diplomatic tensions between the United States and its key allies in the war on terrorism.
Among all the countries where Washington conducts drone strikes, the Pakistani nation in particular has condemned the strikes as a stark violation of its sovereignty and also counterproductive in combating extremism in the country’s lawless tribal region.
For those who have closely monitored the debate about drones, media reports have often proven too overwhelming, given the divergence of claims made by both sides. In the midst of intense discussions among diplomats and security experts, the voices of the actual tribal communities where these strikes have been taking place have remained unheard for almost a decade.
Now, however, American University Professor Dr. Akbar Ahmed’s latest book “The Thistle and the Drone“, published by Washington-based Brookings Institution, has finally given voice to how the ‘War on Terror’ is being viewed as a war against Muslim tribal societies. The tribal regions, such as Waziristan in Pakistan, had historically enjoyed either remarkable internal autonomy or widespread poverty and underdevelopment. Today, the tribesmen believe drone strikes have made “every day like 9/11” for them. In wake of the Predator attacks, the tribes feel collectively terrorised, humiliated and displaced from their native lands.
Dr. Ahmed, who had previously served as a Political Agent, the highest official administrative post, in Waziristan, passionately endeavors to educate his readers with firsthand experiences on how tribal societies function and what their traditions and values mean to them.
He opens The Thistle and the Drone with a comparison of the United States’ search for Osama bin Laden, which cost trillions of dollars, and the search for Safar Khan, a notorious criminal back in the day when the author was the political agent as the agent of the tribal region:
“It was not Bush but his successor, Barack Obama, who located and killed bin Laden. But it would take a decade of war costing trillions of dollars, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and millions displaced. Entire nations would be thrown into turmoil and the world put on high alert. I got my man alive without a single shot being fired. The writ of the government was established, justice served and the guilty man brought to book. The difference was that I worked entirely within the tribal framework and traditional social structure.”
Dr. Ahmed attributes the failure of the United States and Pakistan to deal with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other tribal worries to their ignorance of tribal lifestyles and patterns of behavior.
The author goes on to add: “Today all major decisions and initiatives in this area are being made by military officials, whereas the entire operation to get Safar Khan was led by the civilian administration inclose cooperation with tribal elders and win the regions’ larger tribal networks that crossed several borders.”
But The Thistle and the Drone is not just a book about drones. It discusses how the ‘War on Terror’ has increased tensions between the central governments and the Muslim tribes living on the periphery. In addition, it also talks about the relationship between the tribes and the centre in countries where drone warfare has not yet been encountered.
It is probably the first extensive research of its kind which examines at least forty case studies spread in three continents. The core studies focus on the Pakhtun of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions, the Somali, the Yamenis, the Asir and Najran regions of Saudi Arabia and the Kurds of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
In all these case studies, Dr. Ahmed talks about tribal regions in the Muslim world where “the centre is failing to protect its citizens on the periphery and is not giving them their due rights and privileges according to the principles of modern statehood…wherever the tribes have lived and however fierce their resistance, the intensity and scale of the onslaught from the centre has created the same results: massive internal disruption in the periphery which has consequence for the centre.”
Drone warfare, Dr. Ahmed argues, has exacerbated the miseries of tribal people in the Muslim world because they have been “traumatised not only by American missiles but also by national army attacks, suicide bombers and tribal warfare, forcing millions to flee their homes to seek shelter elsewhere.”
The author says, while quoting one survey, that 92% of the people living in the Pakhtun-dominated areas of Kandahar and Helmand had “never heard of 9/11 and therefore had no idea of its significance for Americans.” The book comprises of the author’s direct interactions with the people of the tribal region and how they feel about the ‘War on Terror’.
“We have been declared terrorists on our own land,” one enraged tribal resident told the author, “no one from the tribal areas was involved in 9/11 or 7/7 or any conspiracy against anyone. For a couple of Arabs our whole nation is being destroyed… the life of a tribesman is so valueless that anyone who wants to bleed a human can come and fire at a tribesman and no questions will be asked.”
The centre of America’s drone strikes in Pakistan has been Waziristan where, according to Dr. Ahmed, out of 118 strikes in 2010, 104 hit North Waziristan. Only 18 drone strikes were reported outside Waziristan between 2004 and 2012. While the debate about authenticity of the statistics regarding civilian casualties has remained the centre of controversy, Dr. Ahmed relies on figures published in two Pakistani newspapers which argue that the vast majority of those targeted in the drone strikes are civilians. While The News, as quoted by the author, reported 701 civilians and 14 “militant” causalities in 60 drone attacks between 2006 to 2009, statistics figures in Dawn say only 5 of the 708 people killed in forty-four drone strikes were known ‘militants’.
Hence, Dr. Ahmed argues, drone warfare has triggered a sense of revenge among tribesmen in Pakistan. The spirit of revenge is so deep that some of the suicide bombers also included women. The author also challenges the work of several contemporary Pakistani writers like Zahid Hussain, Farha Taj, Imtiaz Gul and the late Syed Saleem Shahzad who look at the TTP as a religious organisation with global jihadist motivations. He says, “TTP attacks were motivated not by thoughts of Islamic virgins but the idea of tribal revenge.”
According to Dr. Ahmed, those Pakistani writers who link the TTP to a global jihadist network come with a ‘kind of thinking that remains devoid of cultural and historical context and is therefore not supported by facts on the ground.” In his opinion, this school of analysts is “affiliated with or are based in the centre with its national newspapers and think tanks, they invariably reflect the worldview and therefore their notions are not entirely surprising.”
Dr. Ahmed’s book has come at a critical time, when the United States is gearing up to pull out from Afghanistan in 2014. While it richly educates readers about tribes and their lifestyle, the book, at the same time, raises questions to what extent the author’s glorification of tribal values, such as the Taliban’s “hospitality” for Osama bin Laden or TTP’s suicidal ‘revenge’, can jeopardize peace elsewhere in the world. The ‘War on Terror’ may have worsened the relationship between the centre and the periphery but internal tensions had already existed decades before 9/11 in most of the case studies mentioned in the book.
The Thistle and the Drone will hopefully initiate an earnest debate about tribal people whose lives have been shaken simultaneously by drone attacks, belligerent federal governments and armed insurgent groups like the TTP. In the discourse on the global ‘War on Terror’ the voices of the tribes were barely heard for one decade – and now The Thistle and the Drone has given them a remarkable voice. (Courtesy: Dawn, Pakistan)