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 chuck_spinney@mac.com





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 chuck_spinney@mac.com

Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!
Mats Svensson
Madness in Hebron: Hashem Had No Enemies, Yet Hashem Was Hated
Walter Brasch
Terrorism on American Soil
Louisa Willcox
Grizzly Bears, Dreaming and the Frontier of Wonder
Michael Welton
Yahweh is Not Exactly Politically Correct
Joseph Natoli
A Politics of Stupid and How to Leave It Behind
John Cox
You Should Fear Racism and Xenophobia, Not Syrian Refugees or Muslims
Barrie Gilbert
Sacrificing the Grizzlies of Katmai: the Plan to Turn Brooks Camp Into a Theme
Rev. William Alberts
The Church of “Something Else” in “an Ecclesiastical Desert”
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Bank Crimes Pay
Elliot Murphy
Cameron’s Syrian Strategy
Thomas S. Harrington
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe and the Death of Ezra Schwartz
Gareth Porter
How Terror in Paris Calls for Revising US Syria Policy
Michael Perino
The Arc of Instability
Yves Engler
Justin Trudeau and Canada’s Mining Industry
Tom H. Hastings
ISIS and Changing the Game
Lars Jørgensen
Vive la Résistance
John Halle
A Yale Education as a Tool of Power and Privilege
Norman Pollack
Syrian “Civil War”?: No, A Proxy War of Global Confrontation
Sheldon Richman
Let the Refugees In
James Anderson
Reframing Black Friday: an Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals
Simon Bowring
UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference
Ron Jacobs
Rosa Luxemburg–From Street Organizer to Street Name
Aidan O'Brien
Same-Sex Sellout in Ireland
David Stocker
Report from the Frontline of Resistance in America
Patrick Bond
China Sucked Deeper Into World Financial Vortex and Vice Versa, as BRICS Sink Fast
Majd Isreb
America’s Spirit, Syrian Connection
James A Haught
The Values of Jesus
Binoy Kampmark
British Austerity: Cutting One’s Own Backyard
Ed Rampell
45 Years: A Rumination on Aging
Charles R. Larson
Chronicle of Sex Reassignment Surgery: Juliet Jacques’s “Trans: a Memoir”
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
CounterPunch’s Favorite Films
November 26, 2015
Ashley Nicole McCray – Lawrence Ware
Decolonizing the History of Thanksgiving