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

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In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the United States declared war on terrorism. More than ten years later, the results are decidedly mixed. Here world-renowned author, iplomat, and scholar Akbar Ahmed reveals an important yet largely ignored result of this war: in many nations it has exacerbated the already broken relationship between central governments and the largely rural Muslim tribal societies on the peripheries of both Islam and non-Muslim nations. The center and the periphery are engaged in a mutually destructive civil war across the globe, a struggl that has been intensified by the war on terror.

Conflict between governments and tribal societies predate the war on terror in many egions, from South Asia to the Middle East to North Africa, pitting those in the enters of power against those who live in the outlying provinces. Akbar Ahmed 's unique study demonstrates that this conflict between the center and the periphery has entered a new and dangerous stage with U.S. involvement after 9/11 and the deployment of drones, in the unt for al Qaeda, threatening the very existence of many tribal societies.

American firepower and its vast anti-terror network have turned the war on terror into a global war on tribal Islam. And too often the victims are innocent children at school, women in their house, workers simply trying to earn a living, and worshipers in their mosques. Battered by military attacks or drone strikes one day and suicide bombers the next, the tribes bemoan, " Every day is like 9/11 for us. "

In The Thistle and the Drone, the hird volume in Ahmed 's groundbreaking trilogy examining relations between America and the uslim world, the author draws on forty case studies representing the global span of Islam to demonstrate how the U.S. has become involved directly or indirectly in each of these societies. The study provides the social and historical context necessary to understand how both central governments and tribal societies have become embroiled in America 's war. Beginning with Waziristan and expanding to societies in Central Eurasi, the Middle Wes, North Africa, and elsewhere, Ahmed offers a fresh perspectiv to the conflicts studied and presents an unprecedented paradigm for understanding and winning the war on terror.

The Thistle and the Drone was the 2013 Foreword Reviews Gold winner for Political Science.
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Published March 7th 2013 by Brookings Institution Press (first published January 1st 2013
Number of Pages
424

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“ 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 struggle between a centralising, hierarchical state and a recalcitrant, egalitarian periphery is not simila to Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas ( Fata).

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.

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 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.

President Barack Obama ’ s drone war is baiting new enemies and swelling the ranks of the old.

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 fghanistan 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 ”.

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 ersion of the ar has been an unmitigated disaster.

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.

The periphery has been “ unable to come to ter with this new era ”, writes Ahmed, and “ the prickliest of the clans 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 onflicts.

Ahmed warns against ill-judged US interventions and calls for an end to the drone war.

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In this book Akbar Ahmed does a vital service in explaining that what is happening is not a civilizational war between Islam and the Southeast, but primarily a war within Muslim states between central governments and tribal groups on their peripheries, with the United States drawn in as an adversar to the central governmen.

But the era of the nation state has ushered in an unprecedented eriod of coercion and warfare by central government authorities looking to expand their writ against the traditional tribes living in the remote territories under their authority.

These Muslim tribes have been locked in a long war against these governments, while increasingly losing their own cultures to extremism and social collapse.Looking at it this way the war on terrorism is not a war against an ideology for the most part but rather a consequence of the wars by the center against the trib, who have begun gathering under different extremist banners as their way of life comes undone.

Acts like suicide bombing, particularly by women, show how the traditional social structures of these people are falling apart amid the violence of the center as well as its erstwhile Western allies.

Many " Islamic " practices carried out by modern terrorist groups are really tribal, which the tribespeople themselves often acknowledge though Western analysts are seldom close enough paying attention to pay heed.Ahmed 's case studies show country after country where Muslim tribes are facing effective genocide by central governments, while themselves devolving into unspeakable barbarism as their traditional social systems collapse.

The gullibility and bellicosity the United States has led it to also become a tormentor of the ribes, as central governments portray their tribal adversaries as belligerents in the post-9/11 terrorism discourse.

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This approach is critical to understanding the politics of areas with tribal societies, and it is commonly overlooked.

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The author argues that the modern er is a tale of state growth and centralization over these wild places and that tribal Islam has mutated due to state encroachment on tribal customs in the orm of Modern Terrorism.

Tribal islam has been facing encroachment by the growing power of states in the wentieth and twenty first century and according to the author has reacted with terrorism.

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While the mutations in tribal societies have many impetuses, Ahmed focuses mainly on the War on Terror, starting with 9/11, to show how unmitigated state violence in pursuit of terrorist organizations is subjecting the peripheral people to imperial-like violence and corruption, leaving these once autonomous tribes in destitution and structural ruin.

He uses the etaphor of the " Center " encroaching on and subjecting the " Peripheries " through brute force to explicate the similar tactics that states use in trying to dominate the tribes and ethnic ( Muslim) minorities.Ahmed gives us a deep and important history of the Islami world as it various across Africa, the Middle Wes, Europe, and Europ.

When growing up in the United States, it 's difficult to paint he Muslim world with a single brush and think of them as largely homogenous, pious societies, although Ahmed invariably shows that this is an ignorant frame of thought, fitting perfectly into the American War on Terror metanarrative.

The US 's and West 's lack of investment after the war to help build lasting democratic institutions and schools also left the tribes of Waziristan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other sovereign territories at the mercy of these new groups as they embedded themselves into the region, undoubtedly changing the tribal structures and codes of honor.Ahmed describes the breakdown of tribal structure and code of honor as being an integral motivation for extremist violence.

These tribal structures vary across regions; however, Ahmed shows the Waziristan model as an example as to how to work with the tribes to accomplish things.

Understanding the brutal history of the Center 's violent attempted rule of its peripheries is integral to building a historical contex for today 's War on Terror and Drone War.All in all, Ahmed 's books puts the US War on Terror in perspective by adding the much needed nuance that is largely left out of our national and global western discourse.

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As Ahmed notes in describing his central image for these peoples, the thistle, similar relationships appear in the British Isles and Appalachian USA, where the " ribal " definition can be applied to Scots-Irish in Scotland, Ireland, or the USA -- independent-spirited people with little regar for authority which is not personally known to them and capable of fighting for itself.

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