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Droning Into a War on Tribal Islam


Bina Shah has written an excellent review of Akbar Ahmed’s important new book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings, March 2013). I urge you to read it carefully, because I think it accurately sums up much of Ahmed’s tour de force, at least in so far as I understand it.

Shah’s review appeared in the 7 April 2013 issue of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn  It stands in sharp contrast to Michael O’Hanlon’s petulant review that appeared in the Brookings own blog, which I also urge you to read carefully.


O’Hanlon, a typical inside-the-beltway, thinky-tanky self-proclaimed defense scholar, a defender of the Afghan surge and the drone war, cherry-picks a few quotes (out of 369 pages!) in a pique of critique.  In so doing he sounds more like a Pentagon PR drone defending the farm than a serious reviewer making a dispassionate effort to understand and dissect Ahmed’s thesis.  In contrast, Bina Shah, a novelist, has produced a far more nuanced review that, I think, accurately addresses the core of Ahmed’s thesis, albeit from what is clearly a sympathetic viewpoint.

So what is their difference of opinion about?

The Thistle and Drone documents the results of about 40 case studies in the world wide crises of tribal-central government (periphery-center) relations in Islamic societies.  Ahmed argues how the effects of globalization, especially the war on terror, doubly especially the drone war, is destabilizing the already existing crises in these center-periphery relations and is morphing into a catastrophic anti-tribal religious war.  This is a subject about which most Americans, including O’Hanlon, as well as myself, know almost nothing.

But at least I am learning, thanks to this book.

I found Ahmed’s work to be a fascinating dissection of the tensions among the moral
thethistleandthedrone systems of traditional tribal cultures, Islam, and the modern states in which they exist.  It is both scholarly and highly informative — and it is elegantly written and easy to understand.

Ahmed is a PhD anthropologist by training (Cambridge) and now holds the appropriately named Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC.  But he also has a wealth of practical real world experience: He served a the Political Agent of the Pakistani central government in the South
Waziristan, a place now called the most dangerous place on earth (see this video of his speech to an interfaith conference at the Chautaugua Institute), and as the Pakistan’s ambassador to the UK.

Too often American foreign policy is shaped by a naive projection of our own values onto other people about which we know very little, conditioned always by heavy doses arrogance and ignorance.  Ahmed’s book is a dose of corrective medicine in this regard.  Of course, given its incredibly broad sweep, just about any reader will find passages he or she disagrees with or subjects that are perhaps not addressed sufficiently to one’s satisfaction.

While Professor Ahmed admirably dissects Pakistani President Musharraf’s dysfunctional role in the so-called War on Terror, I, for example, wish he had devoted more time to analyzing the legacy of General Zia ul-Haq’s rule of Pakistan (1977-88) and how that regime shaped contemporary Pakistani politics and its evolving relationship with the United States.  I say this because Zia’s rule coincided with the buildup to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, including the Carter Administration’s efforts in 1979 to use religious fervor to provoke the Soviets into invading Afghanistan, the resulting flood of Afghan refugees into the tribal areas of Pakistan, the emergence of the Saudi-influenced Madrassa culture in the tribal areas, and the evolution of the US-Saudi-Pakistani support of the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan in the 1980s during the Reagan Administration.

On the other hand, these omissions merely represent my own biases and interests, and they in no way detract from the larger cogency of Ahmed’s thesis.  In the words of Dr. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, “This is a book of genuinely global importance; by offering a fresh and entirely persuasive analysis of what the West habitually and superficially treats as ‘religiously motivated’ violence and terror, it demands an urgent rethinking of the disastrous strategies that have been used in the last decade to combat the threat of terrorist activity.”

Caveat Emptor: Akbar Ahmed is a new found friend, whom I both like and admire as a person and as a scholar.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at





Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at

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