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:
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.”“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 in close 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’.