The Duck of Minerva

Tobias Gibson Reviews The Thistle and the Drone

22 July 2013

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Tobias Gibson of Westminster College.

In recent days, there have been reports of U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan, Pakistan. According to the New York Times article, these strikes killed at least two people. This remote area of Pakistan has long been subject to U.S. drone strikes.

The Times also reports that U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are shifting theaters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Africa. This shift includes the expansion of the use of surveillance drones in Mali, flown from a new drone base in Niger. According to the story, the U.S. is partnering with France “to track fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda and other militants” (my emphasis). One of the points of the article is that the U.S. needs to acquire knowledge about local conditions. According to Michael R. Shurkin, a former CIA analyst who is now at RAND, “Effective responses… require excellent knowledge about local populations and their politics, the sort of understanding that too often eludes the U.S. government and military.” Without understanding local conditions, the author contends, the introduction of drones “runs the risk of creating the type of backlash that has undermined American efforts in Pakistan.”

In a post this week, Charli Carpenter discusses evidence that the civilian death count from drones has been drastically underestimated. She argues that if the death counts are higher than publicly estimated, any humanitarian argument about the use of drone as “precision” weapons “goes out the window.” (Side note: those interested in drones and the continued mechanization of war and security should read her (gated) article “Beware the Killer Robots.”)

All of these recent stories should lead to a more profound appreciation of Akbar Ahmed’s recent book The Thistle and the Drone. Ahmed has a simple, yet profound thesis: “it is the conflict between the center and the periphery and the involvement of the United States that has fueled the war on terror.” According to Ahmed, this conflict has played itself out for centuries, as evidenced by European efforts to “civilize” tribes throughout the world in their colonies, the U.S. efforts to in the west to pacify and relocate indigenous tribes, and current efforts by Russia to end separtist violence in Chechnya… and, Ahmed would argue, those discussed above in Pakistan and Mali. The drone is merely the newest weapon in the center’s arsenal.

Another important issued raised by Ahmed is that some of the customs of Islam that westerners find most shocking about the religion are tribal, not religious. For example, “[n]ot sanctioned by Islam, but widely percieved to be Islamic, are syncretic practices such as honor killings… which [is] a holdover from pre-Islamic tribal conditions…”. Indeed, if the this book is correct, it is not “militant Islam” which the U.S. fights, but tribal Islam. President Obama recognizes the tribal issue of Islam as well. In his May, 2013 NDU speech, Obama notes that “Al Qaeda and its affiliates try to gain foothold in some of the most distant and unforgiving places on Earth.  They take refuge in remote tribal regions.” The implications of Shurkin’s quote above are clear.

In short, The Thistle and the Drone is an excellent critique of U.S. drone policy. It is timely, and as the recent articles and thoughts indicate, one that has weight. Indeed, given that President Obama sees drone strikes as particularly effective “[w]here foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism” (also from his NDU speech), the power of the work is hard to deny. Although it has been overshadowed by the excellent Mark Mazzetti book The Way of the Knife, Ahmed’s effort should also be widely read. Given the international bent of Thistle, I think it may be more appreciated by regular readers of this blog.