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

Akbar Ahmed
1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 7 2013

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, diplomat, 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 Muslim and non-Muslim nations. The center and the periphery are engaged in a mutually destructive civil war across the globe, a conflict that has been intensified by the war on terror.

Conflicts between governments and tribal societies predate the war on terror in many regions, from South Asia to the Middle East to North Africa, pitting those in the centers 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 hunt 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 homes, 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 third volume in Ahmed's groundbreaking trilogy examining relations between America and the Muslim 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 Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere, Ahmed offers a fresh approach 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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The Thistle and the Drone reminds the intelligence professional of the importance of understanding local culture and history as the start point for any successful counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operation....by far the greater value of this book lies in the detailed examples Ahmed provides of various tribal communities around the world. Avoiding the esoteric, he provides data useful to the diplomat, intelligence officer, or warrior engaged in political actions or operations in nearly every part of the Islamic world.J.R. Seeger, retired CIA National Clandestine Service officer, CIA. gov Library, Center for the Study of Intelligence



"In the end, I was close to tears. Lagrimas caudales or "flowing tears," to use the apposite phrase of Blas de Otero, seems to be what the book's conclusions lead to.... Thus lagrimas for the tribes, for the soldiers, and for the United States.... Akbar Ahmed gives us the only way out of this dangerous dilemma, a way to coexist with the thistle without the drone." —Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary



"I am moved, horrified, and encouraged all at once. Above all, Professor Ahmed makes me proud to be an anthropologist!" —Professor Marilyn Strathern D.B.E., former William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge



"Ahmed's years of field experience and study, as a government official in tribal Pakistan, as an anthropologist, and as a leading authority on traditional Islam, make him uniquely qualified to offer this timely, balanced, and well-argued analysis of the interaction between modern drone warfare and the tribal peoples it targets. This book should be required reading for any policymaker, student, or military officer seeking to understand the risks and dilemmas of today's conflict." —Colonel David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerilla, reviewing a previous edition or volume



"From Akbar Ahmed, one of the wisest Muslim heads I know, a brilliant deconstruction of America's drone attacks on targets in Pakistan and other Muslim societies across the world. His cogent account of how each attack detonates tribal threads, alienating and radicalizing whole communities still further, is a must-read." —Jon Snow, presenter Channel 4/ITN News



" The Thistle and the Drone... makes a clear argument that the president and his advisers are putting the al-Qaeda cart before the tribal horse." —Malise Ruthven, The New York Review of Books



"This is an important book that deserves the attention of scholars as well as policy makers." —Thomas H. Johnson, Research Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, The Middle East Journal

About the Author

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He was the former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom, the first Distinguished Chair of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy, and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Among his previous books are Journey into Islam and Journey into America, both published by Brookings. He is also a published poet and playwright.


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0 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars completely biased Oct. 6 2013
By chris
Format:Hardcover
A book about why we should blame western society for all Islamic troubles . I mean why take responsibility for ones actions when you can blame someone else ?!
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but could have been great. June 16 2013
By Crackers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I wish I could give this book a better review, I really do. There is much information that simply is not talked about in Western government circles. This book looks at how tribal traditions, when confronted with modernity and globalization, have given birth to what we understand as Islamic terrorism. This understanding truly adds, in fact, completely challenges, what many decision makers in the West see as the root of Islamic terrorism.

Rather than a strong sense of orthodox Islam, terror networks draw their legitimacy from their tribal backgrounds. This is an important factor is we in the West want to achieve success in this ongoing conflict. Ahmed puts forward the idea that tribes in the Af-Pak boarder area have seen their governing structure destroyed by three factors. 1.Modernization. 2. The State, which views them as backwards and uses violence against them, and 3. Globalization. These three threats have destroyed the three pillars of what Ahmed call "The Waziristan Model" which consists of 1. Tribal Leaders. 2. Religious Leaders. 3. Representatives of the State, the Political Agent (PA) in the case of Pakistans frontier.

All of these ideas make a lot of sense. And will enhance your understanding of the problems in Pakistan. However, the book as a giant weakness. The scope of the project is simply too large. Ahmed wants to show that this model rings true in most of the conflicts against terrorism around the world. He looks at dozens of tribes currently involved in conflict. So much so, that all of the location, names, tribes, histories, and reasons for war are simply overwhelming and yet, too brief to truly enhance your understanding of each conflict (save the Pakistani example, as he spends more time on it. Early on, the author makes a point of saying that each case study could demand a book in its own right. And he is correct. This book suffers for that. If he wanted to give an true analysis of all these case studies, this book would have been 1200 pages long. He would have been better to have stuck with 3 or so case studies and examined them in depth. Maybe Pakistan, Yemin and Mali.

And now to deal with the Drones. The drones in the title of this book are really just a metaphor for globalization. Ahmed does not go into detail about enough specific cases of drone strikes, how their targets are chosen, what the results are in terms of deaths, the true position of the Pakistani government on these weapons (they are against it on the surface, but their has been evidence showing they accept it). I bought this book to understand drones better. I now understand the tribes much better, and because of that I MIGHT understand the effects these weapons have on them. But I did not get a clear enough picture of the intent of these weapons by the USA from this book. Which brings me to the next glaring weakness of this book.

Ahmed insists that drone strikes and interventions by the Americans are the result of the Americans being swindled by other governments. He does not talk enough about the american Intelligence community, which is intimately tied to selecting targets for drone strikes. He should have. An understanding of how targets are chosen would do this volume a world of good.

My final criticism. Mr. Ahmed should have told more of his personal experience as a Political Agent in Pakistan, a position he held many years ago. He lets it be known that he had great success by engaging the tribes on their own terms, with their own traditions. He would have been wise to scrap the 110 page long chapter in which he talks about dozens and dozens of different tribes in dozens of countries, and instead include a more in depth account of how politics work in Pakistan with the tribes, especially since his final chapter, "How to win the War on Terror" provides very little suggestions for policy. At one point he spends 2-3 pages talking about the need for Anthropology (his profession). Yes, such experts will help us understand tribes, but the placement of this discussion in the final chapter felt like an interruption.

All in all, you will read this book and get a better understanding of Tribes and the challenges they face and thus the challenges the West faces as these tribes are finding themselves on the opposite side of the battlefield. You understanding of drones drone policy however, will not be much ore than it was before you started. Still worth the read, but be prepared, I can see why some people would disagree.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Two Books, One Good, One Nonsensical April 5 2014
By Steven Metz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This has to be treated as two separate and very different books. When the author is writing about what he knows--the surviving tribal societies in the Islamic world--it provides interesting and useful mini-histories and vignettes. The primary analytic construct is the struggle between the "center" and the "periphery" in these countries, and the efforts of the modern central to impose control on the periphery. There is nothing unique or new about this--almost every nation on earth went through the same process at some time in history. But the author does show a sympathy for the periphery that is almost touching (even though downplaying the underside of tribal societies like the oppression of women.) Most anthropologists would probably take issue with the author's insistence on cramming many groups which do not belong into his category of "Islamic tribal societies," but there is still merit in his depiction.

But when the author attempts to tie this to the United States' war with al Qaeda, he slips off of reality. These chapters are filled with false statements, bizarre assertions, and outright nonsense. Just to provide on example. the author writes, " But America was not fighting an established army equipped with heavy artillery and tanks, an air force, or a navy. It was striking at individuals or small groups, attacking now a police station, now a bus stop, without pause." That is hysterically false. He asserts that the United States has, since its beginning, "exhibited a strong and clear impulse to retaliate with full force at any perception of threat." He attributes this demonstrably false assertion to some undescribed "field research" in the United States. Perhaps he would have been better served reading a book or two on American history.

At times the book becomes absolutely surreal as when the author points to changes in American movies and television from the 1950s to the present as evidence that the United States has somehow shifted from a benevolent to a malevolent nation. There is not the slightest hint that the United States is justified in trying to strike at al Qaeda, or that the Islamic tribes which provide sanctuary to al Qaeda bear some responsibility (instead lapsing into orientalism and portraying them with an almost child like innocence. Apparently the author believes that revenge on the basis of "honor" by Islamic tribes is understandable and even noble, but revenge against Islamic tribes protecting those who kill Americans is evil). Another example of the caricature level portray is the author's assertion that

The author makes the ridiculous assertion that after the September 11 attacks, the United States was so infuriated that it declared war on all Islamic tribal societies everywhere. He writes, "What was clear was that, imperceptibly and inexorably, America's war on terror had become a global war against tribal Islam." He goes on to assert that in "the social environment formed by the sadism of Dick Cheney and the corrupt executives of Wall Street...all Muslim tribal societies were now viewed as either infested with terrorists or offering a potential safe haven for them." This blithely ignores the demonstrable falseness of the statement--the existence of many Islamic tribal societies which do NOT support al Qaeda and which the United States has no problem with.

The author also does not understand the distinction between law enforcement and war, asserting that the use of drones against al Qaeda and its supporters "is a clear violation of the right to trial under both U.S. and international law."

It is true that America's involvement in the Islamic world and conflict with al Qaeda needs major revision which, in turn, requires cogent, rational analysis and new ideas. The American strategy of supporting central governments in Islamic nations and hoping they they become "legitimate" in the Western sense and exercise full control over all their national strategy is banckrupt. Unfortunately, this book does not provide the cogent, rational analysis needed to move beyond this. Ultimately, the publisher should be embarrassed by it. It is often absurd diatribe masquerading as scholarly analysis.
16 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 6 Star (My Top 10%) -- The Book Susan Rice Should Read First June 6 2013
By Robert David STEELE Vivas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I received and read this book today, and while I am troubled by the author's buying into the Bin Laden story and the official 9/11 cover-up, this is a six-star book that easily provides one stellar concept that must be integrated into the fabric of every foreign policy -- understanding the failures of the centers in each state with respect to the more traditional peripheries -- and a deep broad articulation of why the US "war on terror" has actually been a thoughtless unnecessarily expensive and harmful war on tribes.

Ignore those who demean this book or this author. I generally consider Brookings to be expert at publishing dumbed down talking points for loosely-educated policy makers, but this book is easily in the top tier, a book Cambridge or Oxford would be comfortable publishing, and a book that ties in perfectly with Philip Allot's extraordinary book The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State. Read my review of that book as a pre-quel to reading this book, which I certainly recommend in the strongest possible terms.

I am among those who hold political leaders in the USA -- a few exceptions notwithstanding -- in very low regard. Those of us with intelligence and integrity have known for a long time that the US policy and acquisition "system" is corrupt to the bone, incoherent, and so uninformed as to suggest everyone in Congress and the White House are on drugs. Just two books to this point: Paul Pillar's Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform and Robert Kaiser's Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn't -- and of course the standard in the field from Mort Halperin, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy; Second Edition where "Rule One" is -- I do not make this stuff up -- "Lie to the President if you can get away with it." Susan Rice is entering the heart of the cesspool, where everyone, without exception, is going to be lying to the President and to her, and while I wish her well, I lament the raw fact that there is no organization in this town dedicated to intelligence with integrity on all topics, committed to my own mantra, "the truth at any cost lowers all others costs."

I was the contractor who provided US Special Operations Command with the tribal maps and attitude surveys prior to their going into both Afghanistan and Iraq. We did not have time time to do the in-depth tribal studies such as the author of this book and many others are capable of developing, but it merits comment that neither CIA nor DIA could do for USSOCOM what OSS.Net and its many international sources pulled off almost overnight, at very low cost. SOCOM -- as the author himself points out late in the book -- at least cares about tribal culture, custums, and concerns. The same cannot be said for any other element of the US "national security" community, which is actually an archipelago of pork pies where the only people "heard" are those who pay to be heard -- 5% being the standard kick-back. Washington think tanks are next to worthless because they do not do holistic systems studies and they have no comprehension of true cost economics and multi-domain feedback loops (try thinking about every problem in terms of water present and water future -- it changes everything).

It is in the context of a Washington that is morally and intellectual broken, with a new National Security Advisor starting work in July, that I consider this book to be quite stellar. A few of the points that capture its essence:

01 Classic US idiocy to equate the Muslim religion with terrorism, which is a tactic not a threat. Washington claims it does not, but in fact US military schools still convey the "nuke the M..F...rs" attitudes.

02 The break-down between the center and the periphery is not just a Muslim state-tribal issue, it is characteristic of every state, and I would certainly include the USA, where 27 secessionaist movements are still in existence and the black people rioting with sticks could well be replaced by white people rioting with shotguns. Washington is so out of touch with the 22.4% that are unemployed, including students, veterans (22 suicides a day now, up from 18 -- and these are just the successful ones), labor, and soccer moms whose angst can no longer be controlled by medication -- they see the theft everywhere (see Matt Taibbi's Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History and Hedrick Smith's Who Stole the American Dream?). My own Graphic: Preconditions of Revolution, is still not understood by anyone in power anywhere that I know of.

03 Governance is about BALANCE. The author makes this case using a very tough nut, Waziristan, where the three sources of authority that must be reconciled day by day, case by case, are tribal, religious, and political (the last representing the "center"). I have spent most of my life overseas across Asia and Latin and Central America, find the US national security bureaucracies -- including the Department of State -- to be toxic. They are simply not capable of nuanced study, understanding, and accommodation. Loch Johnson's Seven Sins of American Foreign Policy (Great Questions in Politics Series) are alive and well today.

04 Muslim states are not one size fits all. This was for me a most interesting part of the book, and illuminates my point about nuances -- since John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I do not believe we have had a Presidential administration capable of nuances, and would observe that in the case of JFK, he had to do all the heavy-liffting, his minders were all on the imperial track or what the author calls the "steamroller" track. He outlines and discusses five distinct models, and I am reminded of various works pointing out that Indonesia, Malaysia, and India (the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia) have all found solid paths, while Pakistan and now Turkey have stumbled.

05 Chapter 6, "How to Win the War on Terror: Stopping a Thousand Genocides Now," is the chapter Rice should read in preparation for advising the President to close down the CIA drone operation and the JSOG task forces all over Africa and now into Latin America -- we also need to stop the GLADIO B operations out of Turkey into the Caucasus, close down the the various Central Asian "adventures," and give serious thought to professionalizing how the USA does intelligence, policy, acquisition, and operations. Right now we have amateur hour -- loosely-educated people without ethics. It is a FACT that the CIA drone operations have a "success rate" of no better than 2%, with the other 98% being innocent women, children, and old men, all collateral damage on the scale of Fallujah. Similarly it is a FACT that JSOG A teams are furious with rotten intelligence out of DIA and CIA that keep expanding the kill lists down to tea vendors and taxi drivers. Criminally insane. What we spend $75 billion a year on today in the name of intelligence is nothing more than rancid pork.

QUOTE (327): It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the United States has been fighting the wrong war, with the wrong tactics, against the wrong enemy, and therefore the results can be nothing but wrong.

The author goes on to spell out his recommendations, buy the book, read with an open mind, I can absolutely guarantee that the other 1,800 plus non-fiction books I have reviewed here at Amazon all support the author's wisdom. Just two that make the point going back to World War II and into the future: The Fifty-Year Wound: How America's Cold War Victory Has Shaped Our World and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.

This is a book of common sense and truth. If and when it goes to a second edition I hope the publisher will integrate some badly needed graphics showing tribal areas of influence and linguistic separation point. Some maps of conflict zones would be useful. An appendix on the ten high level threats to humanity and the twelve core policy areas that are not managed coherently, as well as the eight demographic challengers that are not only ignoring the USA, but creating a completely new honest financial system and development bank, would be useful.

We've made so many mistakes -- good people trapped in bad systems, with the best of intentions. We have done so because ideology displaced intelligence, and corruption displaced integrity. This book is as a good a starting point as any I can recommend for re-thinking how we represent America the Beautiful.

My final link, chosen with great care: Will Durant's 1916 thesis, now available as Philosophy and the Social Problem: The Annotated Edition

Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
INTELLIGENCE for EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainability (2010)
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Makes you THINK. April 28 2014
By Mr. R.G.Miller - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As an Australian whose nation's past conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (who sent my generation to Vietnam in the sixties) has just published a book confirming that our joint facility in Australia's west, Pine Gap, plays an important role in targeting those who die under the drones' attacks, I must say this book is a real eye-opener.
Read it if you have any doubts about extra-judicial killings. Remember, if we can do it to them, they can do it one day to us. Hmmmmm!
16 of 31 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A very one sided book June 14 2013
By Robert S - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I agree with the previous one star reviewer. The author appears to have very good credentials, a very good education, very good experience with the "tribes", but very faulty reasoning. He blames the United States for everything either by overt action, covert action, or by support of the "center", meaning the established governments who rule over the tribes. He lists numerous atrocities committed by the US and/or the centers against the periphery but he fails to highlight, in the same manner, the atrocities committed by the tribes. Instead, the slaughters by the tribes are called "revenge'. His argument seems to be that if the centers allow the tribes (the periphery) autonomy, the problems will go away. The implication is that the tribes, whether they be the Boko Haram, the Kurds, the Pukhtun, etc are a group of honorable men who govern their tribes based on hundreds of years of tradition. He asserts that honor, revenge, and other noble characteristics are the mainstay of the tribes and that if the center allows them to practice their tradition, all will be fine.
However, if what Professor Ahmed says is correct, and the governments let the tribes continue their traditions (and in many cases Sharia law), we will have continued stoning to death, women will still be prevented from getting an education,( i.e. Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Taliban because she wanted to get an education) or cases where Pakistani women get their noses cut off because someone's honor has been assaulted and many more things of the like. And, Professor Ahmed, what about the cases of honor, which you so righteously defend, in which if a member of family A has been murdered by a member of someone from family B. Then family A has the right to murder someone from family B. Is this a tribal practice to be defended? What about the poor innocent who is murdered in revenge whose only crime was to be a member of family B?
The crimes Professor Ahmed is accusing the centers of doing against the periphery are little different than the crimes the periphery are committing against their own people and others who disagree with their tribal traditions. The "trial by ordeal" that Professor Ahmed relates is a perfect example (Page 31). In the trial, the accused is forced to walk on burning coals. If his feet are burned, he is guilty, if his feet are not burned, he is innocent. Dr Ahmed concludes the section on trial by ordeal by saying, "trial by ordeal nonetheless offered many in the tribe a sense of identity and therefore pride." Perhaps this is so, but it is a barbaric act and has no relation to guilt or innocence and should be halted. And I certainly would not count in the tribe to halt this practice. If the center does not halt it, who will? To the person under trial, the approach used is exactly the type of "steamroller" approach that Ahmed is faulting the US and other center governments of. The center must do what is necessary to halt those types of traditions. If the center does not outlaw honor killings, nose and ear amputations, trails by ordeal, the denial of rights of women, etc, etc who will? Professor Ahmed must condemn these types of things, not defend them or cast them as time honored traditions by the noble savage.
A one star book.
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