Tribal systems in Muslim world not a relic of the past

Understanding tribal societies and their ethical standards is essential to outsiders - especially those who deploy killer drones.

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What do these regions have in common: the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands, Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel? Some might see them as random areas of instability constantly in the news bulletins, and the places where George W Bush's "war on terror" is still being fought.

But they are also the location of a peculiarly 21st century battlefield: Muslim tribal societies under attack from the world's most advanced weapon, the armed drone high in the sky.

This is the view of Akbar Ahmad, a one-time administrator of parts of Waziristan and Balochistan who has taken on the burden of trying to explain to the United States how tribal societies respond to being attacked by an enemy they cannot see. A professor of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, he believes that tribal societies in the Muslim world have been in a state of confusion since the launch of the "war on terror". The drone war has led to a terrible "mutation" in their traditional social codes.

Recent events seem to confirm this. Last Saturday, a Pakistani Taliban hit squad attacked the Nanga Parbat base camp in Gilgit-Baltistan and killed nine foreign climbers and their Nepalese guide. The scene of this atrocity was far from the Taliban's strongholds. A spokesman for the Pakistan Taliban explained that this was a revenge attack for American drone strikes that killed one of their leaders, Waliur Rehman, last month.

But in what sense was this revenge? The victims were Ukrainians, Slovakians, Chinese, Lithuanian, Nepalese and one Chinese-American and had no conceivable connection to Barack Obama's drone campaign.

In the past, the tribes of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier lived by a code of honour that ensured stability. Revenge was a duty but there were clear rules saying on whom vengeance should be exacted and the timescale was measured in years or decades. It did not involve shedding the blood of any defenceless foreigner who happened to be within reach at the time.

Professor Ahmad told an audience in London this week that the drone is, in terms of the Pashtun code, a dishonourable weapon as there is no chance of a fair fight. Since the enemy has no honour, the response was unusual and thus dishonourable. The breakdown of social codes is hardly surprising, he says, because some 400 tribal elders have been killed in Waziristan during the "war on terror".

The mutation of tribal society has a complex history. In colonial times, foreign powers exerted pressure on Muslim tribes, with Britain famously bombing the Iraqi Kurds from the air. When the empires retreated, the tribes hoped for a bigger stake in the countries of which they found themselves citizens. But pressure exerted by the new rulers only grew - as exemplified by Saddam Hussein's campaigns against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, or Muammar Qaddafi's repression of the tribes of eastern Libya.

When the Americans intervened from the air, the tribes came under pressure from their rulers and from Washington. This triangle showed itself to deadly effect in 2004, when the Pakistan government sent 120,000 soldiers to invade the tribal areas.

A Pentagon official has written that he wished Prof Ahmad's new book, The Thistle and the Drone, had been published immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, "so that the planners and decision makers could have avoided many of the mistakes that were made over the last 12 years".

One problem is that Americans tend to see tribes as a relic of the past, out of a Wild West movie, or perhaps the Scotland of Braveheart, not living social systems.

Prof Ahmad, with a tinge of nostalgia, believes that it is possible to recreate stability in the tribal areas. Just as the Britain learnt after bloody defeat in two Afghan wars how to work with the tribes, so it should be possible for Pakistan. Authority in the past was wielded by the tribal elders, with mullahs acting as mediators and a political agent representing the government. But now traditional leaders are outbid by younger firebrands.

After all the blood spilt, the road to the past is blocked. The Taliban, an insurgent movement against traditional Afghan leaders that grew from the devastation of the Soviet invasion, are now the model.

After an estimated 3,000 dead from drone strikes in various battlefields, the drone itself is widely viewed as the culprit. Imran Khan, the Pakistani opposition politician, vowed during last month's election campaign that his first act would be to order the Pakistani air force to shoot down the American drones.

In five years, such statements may look outdated. Soon, drones will be no longer be the weapon of a superpower. They will be available to every country that can afford a modern army. Perhaps they will not be so sophisticated as the ones that strike terror on the tribes but they will be capable of spying and dealing death. The brutal fact is that mountains and deserts no longer offer a space of freedom for tribes to pursue their lives away from the encroachment of government.

A new settlement based on respect between the peripheral areas and the centre of power will be needed. Prof Ahmad cites the Indonesian region of Aceh, where a peace agreement following the 2004 tsunami brought 29 years of conflict to an end. Could the departure of the US armed forces from Afghanistan next year be the catalyst for a reconciliation in Waziristan, Yemen or Iraq's Anbar?

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the bloodshed of the "war on terror" and the running sore that is the Syria conflict, it will not be easy to achieve such a breakthrough in the greater Middle East. A better understanding of the tribal system, and how it got broken, would be a good start.

On Twitter: @aphilps