American University's Akbar Ahmed Explains Why Drones Aren’t Winning the War on Terror: The Thistle and the Drone

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American University's Akbar Ahmed, in the third volume of his trilogy, The Thistle and the Drone (Brookings Press, March 2013), examines U.S. relations with the Muslim world after 9/11 and presents a fresh, unprecedented paradigm for understanding the war on terror based in the historical tension and conflict between Muslim tribes found on the borders of nations and their central governments.

Akbar Ahmed, author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings Press, March 2013).

America’s war on terror has in fact exacerbated and expanded the already broken relationship between center and periphery across the Muslim world.

Should drones be the U.S. weapon of choice? The argument from the White House is a resounding “yes” in the face of shrinking military budgets, popular opposition to putting boots on the ground, and the perception that drones keep America safe. Simply put, supporters argue drones save U.S. blood and treasure. But are there drawbacks to relying on drones to prosecute the war on terrorism? World-renowned author, diplomat, and scholar, Akbar Ahmed, American University School of International Service’s Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, in his new book, "The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam" (Brookings Press March 2013) says the United States is in fact fighting the wrong war with the wrong methods against the wrong enemy. Ahmed, in the third volume of his trilogy with Brookings Press examining U.S. relations with the Muslim world after 9/11, presents a fresh and unprecedented paradigm for understanding the war on terror based in the historical tension and conflict between Muslim tribes found on the borders of nations and their central governments. He further argues that America’s war on terror has in fact exacerbated and expanded the already broken relationship between center and periphery across the Muslim world.

Ahmed explores the complexities of the war on terror in The Thistle and the Drone based on his social and historical analysis of 40 case studies of peripheral tribal societies, from Morocco to the Philippines, who each have become embroiled in different ways in America’s war. The prickly thistle becomes a metaphor for these fiercely independent tribal societies in their mountains and deserts who have resisted invaders and conquerors for centuries and have now become the primary target of the deadly drone. The drone becomes a metaphor for America and its war on terror. It is sleek, high-tech, and has a global reach. Hovering 50,000 feet overhead unseen, there is no escape from it for the tribes on the ground as the drone’s use increases and expands into new areas.
Amidst the anarchic violence, it is the innocent people of the periphery who suffer the most—the children sitting in school, worshippers in a house of prayer, or families at market. Communities, who have survived in their rugged terrain for thousands of years, are struck by drones or their own military one day, and suicide bombers the next. The tribal peoples of the periphery say, “Every day is like 9/11 for us.”

As an anthropologist and government administrator, Ahmed has first-hand knowledge of these tribal societies. He served his native Pakistan’s central government as political agent in the South Waziristan Agency– the epicenter of today’s drone warfare. Ahmed explains how the tribes in Waziristan have historically lived outside of the state system possessing a unique language, territory, customs, and traditions, how they became part of the modern state, and the roots of the turmoil after 9/11. Beginning in Waziristan, he expands to other similar tribal societies in Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. Ahmed shows how America’s war on terror has become a global war on tribal Islam.

Dr. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, stated that in The Thistle and the Drone “Professor Ahmed combines a clear professional anthropological expertise with an equally clear, critical and humane moral perspective. This groundbreaking book should be compulsory reading for Western governments.” Akbar Ahmed provides a path forward to establishing sustainable peace in the periphery and ultimately winning the war on terror.

American University is a leader in global education, enrolling a diverse student body from throughout the United States and nearly 140 countries. Located in Washington, D.C., the university provides opportunities for academic excellence, public service, and internships in the nation’s capital and around the world.

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J. Paul Johnson
American University
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