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.

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The magical realism of body counts

The following article appeared on Al Jazeera. (in Spanish in Rebelión). You can hear my interview with PressTV here. Andrew Sullivan quotes me on his influential blog the Daily Dish and Natasha Lennard quotes me over at Salon.

Gravediggers of Afghanistan and Pakistan have been kept busy as the US drone war has expanded, but civilian deaths remain undercounted as mendacious officials build a myth of technological accuracy and violent ‘justice’ (REUTERS)

A gypsy named Melquiades who died many years ago in Singapore returned to live with the family of Colonel Aureliano Buendia in Macondo, because he could no longer bear the tedium of death. These are the kinds of characters that populate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magnificent work One Hundred Years of Solitude. Today they also seem to occupy the tribal badlands of Pakistan’s north-western frontier.

On June 3, when Ilyas Kashmiri was killed in a US drone strike, he had already been dead for over a year. In September 2009, the CIA claimed that it killed Kashmiri along with two other senior Taliban leaders in North Waziristan. But the lure of the limelight was seemingly irresistible even in death, because on October 9, Kashmiri returned to give an interview to the late Syed Saleem Shahzad of Asia Times Online.

Baitullah Mehsud, the former commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also rose from the dead many times. On at least 16 occasions, Mehsud was in the gun-sights when CIA drones loosed their Hellfire missiles. Yet, until August 2009, he proved unable to settle into the afterlife. Mullah Sangeen also experienced at least two resurrections.

Death is clearly not what it used to be.

Or perhaps the people who were killed in the other attacks were not Kashmiri, Sangeen or Mehsud. Indeed, the attack on a funeral procession on June 23, 2009, which killed Sangeen was supposedly aimed at the TTP chief. It killed 83 people who certainly were not who they were supposed to be.

These are not isolated events. At the end of 2009, the Pakistani daily Dawn calculated that, of the 708 people killed in 44 drone attacks that year, only 5 were known militants. Earlier that year, The News, Pakistan’s other major English-language daily, had calculated that between January 14, 2006, and April 8, 2009, 60 drone attacks killed 701 people – of whom only 14 were known militants.

You can read the rest here

I Want to Live with my Family

by Kathy Kelly and Josh Brollier

May 24, 2010

Refugee family living in Shah Mansoor

Islamabad–Abir Mohammed, a refugee from Bajaur, says that the battles which raged in his home province since 2008 have dramatically changed his life. We met him in a crowded Islamabad café where he politely approached customers, offering to shine their shoes. He isn’t accustomed to shoeshine work. But, he needs to earn as much money as possible before reuniting with family members who await him, near Peshawar, in a tent encampment for displaced people.

Formerly, he lived with his wife, his five children, his mother and four brothers in a home near the Afghanistan border. “We were very satisfied with our life,” says Abir Mohammed. “My brothers and I cultivated wheat crops and maintained orchards.” His land is full of rich soil. “But, in these days,” says Abir, “due to disasters and lack of water and electricity, there is no chance of cultivating crops.”

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Losing Pakistan

A child beside at a refugee camp near Islamabad (Greg Baker/AP)
A child beside at a refugee camp near Islamabad (Greg Baker/AP)

US drones have just killed 29 tribesmen in Mirali, North Waziristan. The military invasion of Swat continues meanwhile. The story has already dropped out of headlines, in some cases vanishing altogether, meanwhile nearly a 1000 people have been killed, more than a million displaced, with most of their property and livelihoods destroyed. The following analysis from Brig (ret) F. B. Ali is astute when it comes to describing the error and futility of this operation, but it overstates the likelihood of Islamist take over in Pakistan, the chances of which are close to zero. (via Col. Pat Lang’s indispensable Sic Semper Tyrannis).

The tragedy now unfolding in Pakistan is occurring due the pursuit of shortsighted policies by the United States as well as the Pakistan government and military. The US has pressured Pakistan into engaging in brutal military operations in Bajaur and Swat, with no regard for how this would affect its own vital interests in the region. The Pakistani rulers (bedazzled by the glitter of all those promised billions) have meekly complied in waging war on parts of their own people, again with no thought to the likely outcome for them and their country. The main impact of this has been to the civilian population, some million and a half of whom have been displaced (with many killed and maimed, although no figures for these are yet available).

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