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

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

By Ghulam Qadir Khan Daur

Professor Akbar Ahmed’s book ‘The Thistle and the Drone’ is an in depth, challenging work of great scholarship, where in to say in one sentence he ‘gives voice to the voiceless’. The title ‘The Thistle and the Drone’, represents the drone as a symbol of America’s ‘technological superiority’ and the thistle, as a metaphor for ‘the tough and resilient tribal societies’.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He was Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, the first Distinguished Chair of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy and a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. This is Professor Ahmed’s third book in a remarkable trilogy that examines relations between the US and the Muslim world. In his previous books, Journey into Islam and Journey into America, both published by Brookings he takes the reader into the heart of America and its Muslim communities to look at their troubled relationships after 9/11. He is a published poet, playwright and a film maker.

Professor Ahmed is a renowned anthropologist having spent time both as administrator in Waziristan and Balochistan and as a student in Mohmand tribal areas. There couldn’t possibly be a more qualified person to write about the tribal areas on the peripheries. He has so rightly focused on the tribal way of life, identifying things central and sacred to them, like their ancient code of honor, which takes precedence over all other concerns. He argues that disrespecting the tribal code in the name of modernity and globalization results in misunderstandings and ultimately concludes on the reasons of how and why the tribal societies got entangled in America’s war on terrorism.

Being a resident of Waziristan I strongly felt that we have been persecuted for the last decade for no apparent fault. The world wrongly branded the tribal areas as nurseries of terrorists; no one knows or cares for the population’s plight, what the ordinary tribal suffers. Our plight and pleadings were unheeded and unheard till this book arrived, wherein the author writes, “The Waziristan I knew lies in ashes, suicide bombers from the community relentlessly tearing it apart.” Ah, he speaks my heart I say, honestly I cried when I read the book. Forgive my ignorance but I thought only we were suffering due to wrong policies but I was appalled to know that it was a worldwide phenomenon to persecute tribes on the peripheries.

I don’t know much about the forty odd societies that the author mentions but I know Waziristan and I am glad Professor Ahmed built his argument on the ‘Waziristan model’ which rests on three pillars of leadership in tribal societies – tribal elders, religious clerics, and the Political Agent. He attributes the breakdown of the model to a process of decay, which had already weakened it and Pakistan’s ill-planned and ill-timed military incursion into Waziristan in 2004. He believes that had these pillars been in place the TTP or any other misadventure could have been contained. Professor Ahmed has very rightly pointed out that the tribes cannot be expected to forsake the ways of the fathers. He passionately pleads understanding the tribal ways and the need to work through tribal structures and instruments of administration for lasting peace. To remove the tribes away from traditions, we have to educate and develop them. The Qalang tribes were also Nang tribes a few decades back till modernism changed them to civilized, law abiding citizens. The Nang tribes have to be brought into mainstream through development and modernization. Till then he goes on to conclude the model has to be “painfully, slowly but surely recreated with suitable adjustments for democratic enfranchisement.”

To some re establishing Waziristan model might seem the author’s romance with the past but at present there is no alternate system available to replace it. There is no central authority in the tribal areas and the government has been unwilling to introduce reforms, to give the tribes equal rights, so perforce we have to look back at the old system till a replacement is made available.

The author has touched upon a critical issue; mutation of the mode of Badal (revenge) in the traditional tribal and Islamic society giving birth to suicide bombings. All debts have to be paid; there is no other way to live with honor. Today Badal has mutated to suicide bombings of schools, mosques and government institutions because there is no other way to fight the sophisticated drone technology and aerial bombardments and as fighting the foe becomes ever more difficult more mutations might be witnessed, the tribes might come up with something even deadlier to fight back. 

The undemocratic central governments in their efforts to legitimize their rule and win favors from the US have encouraged action against their opposition in the periphery branding them as supporters of terrorists. Al-Qaeda on the other hand aligning itself or showing its presence among the tribes has very skillfully pitched the US globally against Muslim tribal societies.

Professor Ahmed’s has vehemently pleaded the plight of the tribes, narrating historical events to show how central governments through use of brute force, tried to eliminate tribal identities, to bring the tribes under central government’s authority and how jealously the tribes have guarded their independence, enduring wars, sufferings and obliteration. The US has failed to understand the nature of tribal society and appreciate its notion of honor and revenge. It has failed to recognize defiance of the tribes to control of the center. Thus America is currently only aggravating this conflict. Professor Ahmed also referred to lessons learnt from American history, its own relations between the centre and periphery where the founding fathers allowed its people to participate and benefit as equal citizens while maintaining their own local culture and heritage.

For “healing a fractured world” the author proposes coexistence between the Thistle and the Drone, the tribes of the peripheries and the technologically advanced nations supporting ruthless central governments. This is only possible if there is a better understanding of each other on both sides.

The book is a beautiful reading, a hallmark of Professor Ahmed’s writings. It is meticulously researched giving a new dimension to the conflict, setting aside the theory of clash of civilizations. He has narrated events and anecdotes he came across during his illustrious career, displayed photographs of the time, to explain situations and except of the vastness of the canvass, too many case studies, which at times astrays concentration, it is a book every policy maker should read. After serving as Secretary for ‘Law and Order’ for Tribal Areas in Pakistan and observing firsthand the way tribes were being wronged I decided to write on it. To at least let the world know of the plight of the tribesmen. Hence I wrote a book Cheegha, The Call. Knowing Professor Ahmed’s love for the tribesmen I requested him to write its foreword. Looking at his commitments I wasn’t sure if he will oblige but lo and behold he not only wrote the foreword but quoted my unpublished book no less than six times in ‘The Thistle and the Drone’. I thought I was going to be the voice of the voiceless but surely, like always, Professor Ahmed took the lead.

Ghulam Qadir Khan Daur is a senior member of the civil service in Pakistan and formerly in charge in the Tribal Areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He is a scholar of the region and originally from Waziristan.