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The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam Hardcover – March 11, 2013

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The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam + Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism + Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 424 pages
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press (March 11, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0815723784
  • ISBN-13: 978-0815723783
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #187,321 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"In the end, I was close to tears. Lagrimas caudales or "flowing tears," to use the apposite phrase of Blas de Otero, seems to be what the book's conclusions lead to.... Thus lagrimas for the tribes, for the soldiers, and for the United States.... Akbar Ahmed gives us the only way out of this dangerous dilemma, a way to coexist with the thistle without the drone." —Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary

"I am moved, horrified, and encouraged all at once. Above all, Professor Ahmed makes me proud to be an anthropologist!" —Professor Marilyn Strathern D.B.E., former William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

"Ahmed's years of field experience and study, as a government official in tribal Pakistan, as an anthropologist, and as a leading authority on traditional Islam, make him uniquely qualified to offer this timely, balanced, and well-argued analysis of the interaction between modern drone warfare and the tribal peoples it targets. This book should be required reading for any policymaker, student, or military officer seeking to understand the risks and dilemmas of today's conflict." —Colonel David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerilla, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"From Akbar Ahmed, one of the wisest Muslim heads I know, a brilliant deconstruction of America's drone attacks on targets in Pakistan and other Muslim societies across the world. His cogent account of how each attack detonates tribal threads, alienating and radicalizing whole communities still further, is a must-read." —Jon Snow, presenter Channel 4/ITN News

" The Thistle and the Drone... makes a clear argument that the president and his advisers are putting the al-Qaeda cart before the tribal horse." —Malise Ruthven, The New York Review of Books

The Thistle and the Drone reminds the intelligence professional of the importance of understanding local culture and history as the start point for any successful counterinsurgency and counterterrorism far the greater value of this book lies in the detailed examples Ahmed provides of various tribal communities around the world. Avoiding the esoteric, he provides data useful to the diplomat, intelligence officer, or warrior engaged in political actions or operations in nearly every part of the Islamic world.J.R. Seeger, retired CIA National Clandestine Service officer, CIA. gov Library, Center for the Study of Intelligence

"This is an important book that deserves the attention of scholars as well as policy makers." —Thomas H. Johnson, Research Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, The Middle East Journal

About the Author

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He was the former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom, the first Distinguished Chair of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Among his previous books are Journey into Islam and Journey into America, both published by Brookings. He is also a published poet and playwright.

Customer Reviews

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I wish I could give this book a better review, I really do.
Unfortunately, this book does not provide the cogent, rational analysis needed to move beyond this.
Steven Metz
Remember, if we can do it to them, they can do it one day to us.
Mr. R.G.Miller

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Crackers on June 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I wish I could give this book a better review, I really do. There is much information that simply is not talked about in Western government circles. This book looks at how tribal traditions, when confronted with modernity and globalization, have given birth to what we understand as Islamic terrorism. This understanding truly adds, in fact, completely challenges, what many decision makers in the West see as the root of Islamic terrorism.

Rather than a strong sense of orthodox Islam, terror networks draw their legitimacy from their tribal backgrounds. This is an important factor is we in the West want to achieve success in this ongoing conflict. Ahmed puts forward the idea that tribes in the Af-Pak boarder area have seen their governing structure destroyed by three factors. 1.Modernization. 2. The State, which views them as backwards and uses violence against them, and 3. Globalization. These three threats have destroyed the three pillars of what Ahmed call "The Waziristan Model" which consists of 1. Tribal Leaders. 2. Religious Leaders. 3. Representatives of the State, the Political Agent (PA) in the case of Pakistans frontier.

All of these ideas make a lot of sense. And will enhance your understanding of the problems in Pakistan. However, the book as a giant weakness. The scope of the project is simply too large. Ahmed wants to show that this model rings true in most of the conflicts against terrorism around the world. He looks at dozens of tribes currently involved in conflict. So much so, that all of the location, names, tribes, histories, and reasons for war are simply overwhelming and yet, too brief to truly enhance your understanding of each conflict (save the Pakistani example, as he spends more time on it.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Steven Metz on April 5, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This has to be treated as two separate and very different books. When the author is writing about what he knows--the surviving tribal societies in the Islamic world--it provides interesting and useful mini-histories and vignettes. The primary analytic construct is the struggle between the "center" and the "periphery" in these countries, and the efforts of the modern central to impose control on the periphery. There is nothing unique or new about this--almost every nation on earth went through the same process at some time in history. But the author does show a sympathy for the periphery that is almost touching (even though downplaying the underside of tribal societies like the oppression of women.) Most anthropologists would probably take issue with the author's insistence on cramming many groups which do not belong into his category of "Islamic tribal societies," but there is still merit in his depiction.

But when the author attempts to tie this to the United States' war with al Qaeda, he slips off of reality. These chapters are filled with false statements, bizarre assertions, and outright nonsense. Just to provide on example. the author writes, " But America was not fighting an established army equipped with heavy artillery and tanks, an air force, or a navy. It was striking at individuals or small groups, attacking now a police station, now a bus stop, without pause." That is hysterically false. He asserts that the United States has, since its beginning, "exhibited a strong and clear impulse to retaliate with full force at any perception of threat." He attributes this demonstrably false assertion to some undescribed "field research" in the United States. Perhaps he would have been better served reading a book or two on American history.
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Format: Hardcover
I received and read this book today, and while I am troubled by the author's buying into the Bin Laden story and the official 9/11 cover-up, this is a six-star book that easily provides one stellar concept that must be integrated into the fabric of every foreign policy -- understanding the failures of the centers in each state with respect to the more traditional peripheries -- and a deep broad articulation of why the US "war on terror" has actually been a thoughtless unnecessarily expensive and harmful war on tribes.

Ignore those who demean this book or this author. I generally consider Brookings to be expert at publishing dumbed down talking points for loosely-educated policy makers, but this book is easily in the top tier, a book Cambridge or Oxford would be comfortable publishing, and a book that ties in perfectly with Philip Allot's extraordinary book The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State. Read my review of that book as a pre-quel to reading this book, which I certainly recommend in the strongest possible terms.

I am among those who hold political leaders in the USA -- a few exceptions notwithstanding -- in very low regard. Those of us with intelligence and integrity have known for a long time that the US policy and acquisition "system" is corrupt to the bone, incoherent, and so uninformed as to suggest everyone in Congress and the White House are on drugs. Just two books to this point: Paul Pillar's
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