Last May, a Syrian insurgent told The National's Phil Sands about a meeting with US intelligence operators in Jordan. The rebel commander was hoping to procure weapons to resist a regime bristling with Russian arms. But he was surprised to learn that the Americans were more interested in the composition and activities of the opposition group Jabhat Al Nusra. Until the regime provoked the US with its use of poison gas, checking its serial atrocities was a secondary concern. The CIA was collecting coordinates of potential targets for its drones.
This hierarchy of concerns might seem at odds with the US rhetorical posture. But Damascus – until recently a preferred destination for CIA rendition flights – has successfully sapped US sympathy for the opposition by deploying the spectre of Al Qaeda. The opposition comprises myriad elements, most of them non-violent; foreign jihadists too have joined its ranks. But the regime and its backers in Tehran and Moscow have consistently exaggerated their strength. Consequently, the US, though not keen to see President Bashar Al Assad triumph, is less keen to see the opposition win and potentially add to the insecurity of Israel.
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. The 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.
Tribal customs are well established and predictable. But the insertion of the war-on-terror dynamic has fragmented and strained ancient cultures. Generosity and hospitality have yielded to defiance and revanchism. This, paradoxically, has reinforced the belief that the opposition is made up of implacable killers, unfit for dialogue.
By failing to distinguish between the band of jihadis under the mantle of Al Qaeda – a brand used by diverse actors to give their anti-western struggle ideological coherence – and tribes who for centuries have resisted central authority, the US is inheriting remote antagonisms. “Americans have never been clear,” writes Ahmed, “as to where Al Qaeda ends and where the tribe begins and why they resort to violence.” Before 9/11, none of these tribes had grievances against the US: there is now an overflow of rage. The brunt of their fury is borne by communities abutting the tribal region since the tribes lack the means to inflict damage on the US.
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.
If a “small number of Al Qaeda operatives, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, found these tribes to be receptive hosts”, writes Ahmed, it was partly out of the tribal tradition of hospitality and partly because the tribes had been “clamouring, or even fighting, for their rights from central governments for decades”. They saw the new arrivals as potential allies. The failure to understand this relationship and to discriminate between the two has helped Al Qaeda compensate for its dwindling numbers by harnessing tribal resentments.
Pakistan’s version of the war has been an unmitigated disaster. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had astutely withdrawn troops from the tribal regions, promising autonomy. But Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf took his post-9/11 proximity with Washington as a licence for spurning history and sent in the army. The collective punishment that ensued provoked bloody reprisals – and far from taming the tribes, it brought strife to the heartland.
The delicate institutional set-up that had upheld the state’s writ over the region was eroded. Tone-deaf military managers replaced the civilian administrators, who had used their historical knowledge, cultural sensitivity and subtle political skills to maintain order. In a society where dignity and honour are considered paramount, the prodigious use of sticks rankled even potential allies. Mercenary politicians at the centre used precipitate incursions into the Fata to ingratiate themselves with Washington. And Washington replied with drones. The economic costs of operating drones are low; their human costs borne entirely by others. The secrecy that governs their use shields leaders from political consequences. Obama has used them in lieu of a strategy. He has used the sanguine assertion of Hellfire missiles to mask the political cowardice that keeps him from rolling back a clearly doomed policy. Meanwhile, the drones have spawned their own congressional caucus, with lobbying efforts underwritten by arms manufacturers like General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman.
The biggest, most organised interest group, however, is the CIA, which has enjoyed unprecedented influence under Obama. With its institutional fortunes tied to drones, the CIA’s capacity for finding hostile intent will likely grow more acute. Military-age men in the Fata are already considered fair game; rescuers and mourners aren’t spared either. In a place where “a man’s gun is his jewellery”, the CIA has infinite pretexts for killing. The periphery has been “unable to come to terms with this new era”, writes Ahmed, and “the prickliest of the tribes are the ones now suffering the most”.
This dismal reality will only change if decision makers – and the publics with influence over them – acquire a subtler understanding of regional dynamics and the tribal roots of many of these conflicts. The rigour of Ahmed’s analysis is addressed to this end. In its conceptual clarity, it may be the most important contribution to the war on terror debate. Ahmed warns against ill-judged US interventions and calls for an end to the drone war. More important, he calls for attempts to reconcile centres to tribal peripheries by rebuilding mediating institutions. As a former scholar administrator, with a record of successfully resolving complicated tribal disputes using peaceful means, Ahmed speaks from authority. The Thistle and the Drone is a compelling antidote to the prevailing military metaphysics and a timely call for restoring the primacy of politics.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s The Road to Jerusalem will be published by the Edinburgh University Press.