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The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam Hardcover – March 7, 2013
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"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 operation....by 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.
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Read it if you have any doubts about extra-judicial killings. Remember, if we can do it to them, they can do it one day to us. Hmmmmm!
Yet what most struck me about their cross-cultural awareness of the country where they worked was the alarming sense of ignorance. They read all the telexes sent by the Foreign Ministries, as well as the British Foreign Office, and exchange diplomatic small-talk with other embassy personnel at cocktail parties and other meetings; but they had little or no idea of what was really happening outside the goldfish-bowls of their Embassies. They had no understanding how ordinary people lived; how they thought; worshiped; felt, conducted family lives; organized their domestic and professional existences, and so on. Nor did they ever even try to enlighten themselves - after all, they were diplomats in the pay of their country's foreign service, so why did they need to consign themselves to the gutter to find out about people's true feelings?
While reading THE THISTLE AND THE DRONE, I was palpably reminded of this disconnect between diplomats and the people. Akbar Ahmed offers a penetrating study into the different traditions of Islam, and how they are lived, experienced and felt across different territories. Like all religions, it is a complex series of negotiations between personal, religious, cultural, tribal, familial and spiritual beliefs that can only be understood by talking to people and, more importantly, listening to them. Yet no one, not least the political and diplomatic leaders charged with ensuring the safety of the people they represent, has really made the effort to go out and undertake this task. Instead they have been content to remain imprisoned by their own prejudices, and thereby precipitated the "War on Terror," which is nothing else but an invention by a paranoid former US President.
I realize that some readers might accuse me of being anti-western here, of favoring a belief-system which, to many people, has become identified with atrocities beyond imagination. But I still maintain that the only way to reconcile conflict is not through increasing it, but by standing back a little and trying to address the fundamental issues underneath. That requires us to listen to one another - not just to what we are saying, but to what we are really saying. Akbar Ahmed's book calls for this kind of mutual understanding, but one wonders whether the conditions will actually ever exist for that negotiation to take place.
Once the framing is stated, it almost seems obvious, which is perhaps the strongest argument for reading this book. Ahmed goes further to explain how the West has exacerbated regional tensions by inserting themselves into this conflict under the aegis of “the war on terror,” and turned the fight into a global affair against westernization and globalization as defined by Tom Friedman. The unintentional “bug splat” of drone strikes, or the civilian deaths coincident with targeted killings of terrorists, means tribal leaders have a moral responsibility to fight back, aligning with whomever has the strength and willingness to see that fight through. As long as the drone strikes and collateral damage continues, the fight will continue.
The author uses the metaphor of the drone to represent Western technology and power and points out that the thistle captures the essence of tribal societies. The thistle is prickly, hardy, and very hard to uproot. It has an unusual beauty, and it roots in poor soil. Long after all is destroyed, the thistle will abound. Ahmed tells us that the West was used in some cases by “central governments who cynically and ruthlessly exploited the war on terror to pursue their own agenda against the periphery.” We know it is true.
”It is in the interest of the United States to understand, in all the tribal societies with which it is engaged, the people, the leadership, history, culture, their relationship with the center, their social structures, and the role Islam plays in their lives, These issues are, in face, the subject matter of anthropology…Without this understanding, the war on terror will not end in any kind of recognizable victory as current military actions and policies are only exacerbating the conflict."
Ahmed has met Presidents Bush and Obama in his role as academic and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Bush’s administration, I felt, was spectacularly wrong because it was imposing a prefabricated frame of different cultures and societies…Obama’s administration was spectacularly unsure…Both administrations were driven by issues almost wholly on a political level, neglecting the moral and social dimensions and their implications.” Ahmed’s insights may be one of the reasons President Obama did not bomb Syria when the conflict began there. But much damage had been and continues to be done to the relationship tribal groups have with the United States. When the U.S. government put human and civil rights to the service of security, any admiration the U.S. had garnered began to erode.
Ahmed is a huge fan of America’s founding fathers, and the U.S. Constitution. He points out that America itself has wrestled with the center-periphery issue itself in dealing with Native American Indians. Benjamin Franklin wrote that Europeans could learn a great deal from tribal societies: when a Native American elder was offered the opportunity to have several of his tribe educated at a local Virginia college, the elder thanked the government and replied:
"Our Ideas of this Kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours…Several of our Young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly; were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, or Counsellors; they were totally good for nothing… however…if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their Sons, we will take great Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them."
The rise of “instant terror experts” that arose in and around the think tanks sprinkling Washington after 9/11 fueled a distorted view of Islam and seeded Islamophobia throughout the U.S., mistakenly defining Islam as the enemy in the global war on terror. Ahmed gives the U.S. Army credit for gaining a greater understanding of the importance of tribal culture as the war in Afghanistan dragged on, but the strategy of working with tribes as a partner came too late: “The United States did not have the time, the resources, or the temperament to create an effective and neutral tribal administration…”
The solution, according to Ahmed, is using the tribal structure and code to repair “mutations into violence:”
"If the tribal code promotes the notion of revenge, then it just as surely advocates the resolution of conflict through a council of elders based on justice and tradition…While the state must express its ideas of nationhood by providing education and other benefits to its peoples, the leaders of the periphery need to encourage their followers to participate in the processes of change and take advantage of them. The state must understand that its components have different customs and traditions, and it needs to acknowledge them, granting communities on the periphery the full rights and privileges enjoyed by its other citizens…however good the intentions on both sides, there is still the matter of how the each sees the other…each side must appreciate the perception the other side has of it.
"...People on periphery have been traumatized beyond imagination in recent years…They face widespread famine and disease and are voiceless and friendless in a hostile world…They have been robbed of their dignity and honor…Yet the world seems indifferent to their suffering and is barely aware of its scale…The test is to see a common humanity in the suffering of others.”
Ahmed is an academic and he writes fulsomely, with many examples and vignettes. The argument is strong and logical enough to be stated simply in a few pages, though, and we quickly recognize the value of this recast of the conflict in which we are embroiled. I really appreciate his taking the time to write his thesis and I come away with a fresh perspective and appreciation of conflict and amity in our world.
This book is Part III of a trilogy examining relations between America and the Muslim world. It is self-contained, however, individuals may find it worthwhile to look at Ahmed's previous work, JOURNEY INTO ISLAM and JOURNEY INTO AMERICA. Colonel David Kilcullen, author of THE ACCIDENTAL GUERRILLA blurbs praise on the back: "...required reading..."