The Thistle and the Drone

Excerpts from my review of Akbar Ahmed’s remarkable new book.

In the post-9/11 paranoia, many rogues have endeavoured to portray their local adversaries as part of a global terrorist threat. Russia did it with the Chechens; China with Uighurs; Israel with Palestinians – they all claimed to be fighting a “war on terror” against the same Islamist menace that threatened America. Others have followed the template. “Painting their peripheries as associated with Al Qaeda,” writes Akbar Ahmed in his remarkable new book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, “many countries have sought to join the terror network because of the extensive benefits that it brings. They use the rhetoric of the war on terror to both justify their oppressive policies and to ingratiate themselves with the United States and the international system”.

This failure to distinguish regional struggles from global militancy allowed many states to harness US power to settle local disputes. The conflict between a centralising, hierarchical state and a recalcitrant, egalitarian periphery is not unique to Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In the multi-ethnic Orient, geography rarely corresponds with identity. Many tribal societies have been left excluded on the margins. In turn they have resisted modernisation, seeing it as the centre’s tool for expanding its authority. Some of these conflicts, as in Chechnya, have simmered for centuries. But in most places, modus vivendi were evolved guaranteeing the autonomy of tribes while upholding state sovereignty.

The war on terror has disrupted this balance. FATA, Yemen and Somalia represent the most obvious ruptures. But in his exhaustive study, Ahmed considers 40 cases, ranging from Africa and the Middle East to Eurasia, where the war on terror, or its local franchise, has upset the equilibrium to unpredictable, often atrocious effect. In turn, unable to match the power of central governments that are backed by the lethal technologies of a superpower, the tribes have resorted to asymmetrical warfare. The drone has been answered by the suicide bomber.

Ahmed draws the metaphor of the thistle from Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad to represent the resilience and prickliness of tribal society. The drone, on the other hand, is both the symbol and the instrument of the war on terror. The resentments sown by the drones have sprouted a new harvest with all of the thistle’s nettles but none of its beauty.


But the use of drones increases American insecurity in unpredictable ways. Freelance retribution of the kind attempted by Faisal Shahzad at Times Square and the Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon are harbingers of the blowback to come. None of them had any connection to the Fata, but the relentless killing in Waziristan and beyond outraged them all. The more “collateral damage” accumulates, the vaster will be the reservoir of resentment, the greater the willingness to retaliate.

The US is in effect creating the demons it is out to slay. President Barack Obama’s drone war is baiting new enemies and swelling the ranks of the old. Akbar notes: “92 per cent of the people surveyed in the Pukhtun-dominated areas of Kandahar and Helmand a decade after the war began in Afghanistan had never heard of 9/11”. To them, the causes of the US war remain opaque. They have no desire – or capacity – to hurt America; but they, like their forefathers, are committed to repelling overbearing intruders.

Please visit The National to read the rest. 

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