Reviewed by Bina Shah

It is an adage of war that if you want to emerge victorious, you must ‘know your enemy,’ but Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and The Drone proposes that the Western combatants of the ‘war on terror’ have completely failed to understand who they’ve been fighting for the last decade.

In his latest book, Ahmed draws on his experience as a political agent in Fata and his anthropologist’s training to communicate the importance of understanding Muslim tribal societies, and how the use of drones is gradually destroying one of the most basic cornerstones of human civilisation.

Ahmed’s thesis in The Thistle and The Drone is simple: America’s illegal and immoral drone war is fragmenting the fragile and ancient tribal societies of the Pakhtuns, Yemenis, Somalis and Kurds.

While Western countries think that victory via the drone war will bring about world peace and security at a minimal cost to Western life, Ahmed posits that the destablisation of these tribes, and the violation of their codes of honour, will inflame a vast desire for revenge — leading to not the worldwide defeat of terrorism but an increase in violence on a global scale.

The drone of the book’s title is easily identified — the Predator or Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle, of which 20,000 have been commissioned and fly as high as 50,000 feet above ground to gather intelligence on the doings of targets before firing on them.

But where does the thistle come from?

The great Russian novelist Tolstoy, as it happens, used the thistle as the central motif of his short novel Hadji Murad, about a war of resistance between Muslim tribes in the Caucasus and imperialist Russia of the 19th century.

Ahmed, who sees the commonality between all tribal societies for their hardiness, resilience and tenacity, appropriates the metaphor to excellent effect in his book.

According to Ahmed, the ‘war on terror’ is fought not as a bilateral construction, but triangular, with the Western powers, the governments of nations where Al Qaeda operates, and the tribes that exist on the periphery of the nations that gave Al Qaeda shelter or support forming the crucial points of this triangle.

Western forces and the Afghan and Pakistani Pakhtun tribes view each other through a prism of ignorance with America’s emphasis on technology and progress clashing with the tribal code of honour, revenge, and loyalty.

And, “different combatants [are] conducting different wars for different objectives,” with “shifting alliances, general mistrust, betrayals, paranoia, and fear” characterising the conflicts.

Ahmed deftly analyses Muslim tribal structures from Morocco to the Philippines, with special attention on Waziristan, defining the tribe as a unit in which kinship is the defining principle of “social organisation and interaction”.

He knows his territory well as he untangles the tribal code of honour to illustrate how, under the principle of hospitality, even kidnapped hostages are viewed as “guests to be treated with respect”.

But revenge is the terrible non-negotiable part of the code.

Ahmed makes no bones about the fact that tribal sensibilities often trump Islamic mores of conduct; and women can be used in brutal ways to satisfy the need for compensation for a slight to a tribesman’s honour.

It’s where he draws the links between the tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the current maelstrom of terrorist activity that the book really finds its energy.

The balancing act between tribalism and Islam plays itself out every day in varying degrees: “The refusal to abjure tribal practice is evident in the actions of men who perpetrate honour killings and female circumcision and of those who … deny female inheritance and support money-lending and usury — all against Islamic injunctions.”

Yet Ahmed pinpoints “the assault on tribal peoples” by both grasping central governments and invading Western forces as having caused “traditional tribal and Islamic behavior to mutate,” resulting in acts as incomprehensible as suicide bombings in mosques during Friday prayers.

Ahmed shows how the Taliban are not one monolith but made up of multiple groups with differing objectives, interlocking like pieces of an intricate puzzle.

He also dismisses the notion that the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan derives its membership from southern Punjab; no Punjabi or Arab can override the Shabi Khel tribesmen of Mahsud who dominate this militant movement, he says.

And while they claim to want Sharia law, Ahmed writes that their violent actions more closely “reflect primeval notions of revenge” as they systematically destroy the Pakhtun traditions and way of life.

Ahmed spends an entire chapter analysing Osama bin Laden’s Yemeni lineage, history, and speeches to show that the 9/11 attackers had multiple links to the same Yemeni tribes with which Bin Laden was himself connected.

With this in mind, Bin Laden’s role was less of an Islamist messiah and more of a “delusional tribal leader”.

Other chapters are devoted to the missteps of Pakistan’s former dictator, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, whom Ahmed accuses of completely disrespecting tribal society and mishandling delicate situations in both Balochistan and Fata; and Obama’s decision to step up the use of drones against the tribal societies of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines, a clear violation of all international agreements and laws on human rights, conflict and justice.

Are there any solutions to this quandary?

Akbar insists that there are: Western and Pakistani governments must work within the “the traditional frame of tribal authority” to restore the Waziristan model’s three pillars of authority — the elders, who must be “wise and authentic,” the religious clergy, who must be “genuinely educated,” and the political agent, who must be “efficient and honest”.

Political and cultural initiatives should be emphasised in the search for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, with the use of force saved only “as a last resort”.

At the same time, the tribes themselves must work towards progress and modernity, which includes the introduction of and protection of rights for women and those not on the tribal charter.

This reinvention of the relationship between Muslim tribal societies and the national governments will require bold steps and visionary thinking, but the alternative is the worsening of an already dangerous spiral into further violence and chaos.

The book somewhat defies categorisation, veering between an anthropological treatise and a fast-paced, insider’s viewpoint into a misunderstood part of society, but it gamely attempts to balance both.

Although the length of some of its passages is a detour into academic self-indulgence, it’s evident that The Thistle and The Drone, meticulously researched, elaborately argued and elegantly written, is a labour of love.

Ahmed advocates passionately for the tribes that live on the periphery, urging governments and nations within which they exist to treat them with respect and sensitivity, compassion and humanity.

The Thistle and The Drone is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what went wrong in Pakistan’s tribal areas, how this will affect global peace in the years to come and, if the world cares, how things can still be put right.

The reviewer is a novelist

The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam


By Akbar Ahmed

Brookings Institution Press, US

ISBN 0815723784




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