THE THISTLE AND THE DRONE
How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam
By Akbar Ahmed
BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS
Copyright © 2013 Akbar Ahmed
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Thistle and the Drone
"The Jonas Brothers are here. They're out there somewhere," a smiling and confident President Barack Obama told the expectant and glittering audience attending the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington on May 1, 2010. "Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don't get any ideas. I have two words for you: 'predator drones.' You will never see it coming. You think I'm joking?"
Obama's banter may have seemed tasteless, given that he had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but this was not a Freudian slip. The president was indicating he possessed Zeus-like power to hurl thunderbolts from the sky and obliterate anyone with impunity, even an American pop group. One report said he had a "love" of drones, noting that by 2011 their use had accelerated exponentially. It was also revealed that Obama had a secret "kill list." Having read Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, and their ideas of the "just war" and "natural law," which promote doing good and avoiding evil, did not deter Obama from a routine of going down the list to select names and "nominate" them, to use the official euphemism, for assassination. I wondered whether the learned selectors of the Nobel Peace Prize had begun to have second thoughts.
As its use increased, the drone became a symbol of America's war on terror. Its main targets appeared to be Muslim tribal groups living in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Incessant and concentrated strikes were directed at what was considered the "ground zero" of the war on terror, Waziristan, in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. There were also reports, however, of U.S. drones being used against other Muslim tribal groups like the Kurds in Turkey and the Tausug in the Philippines, and also by the United Kingdom against the Pukhtun tribes of Afghanistan, by France in northern Mali against the Tuareg, and even by Israel in Gaza. These communities—some of the most impoverished and isolated in the world, with identities that are centuries-old—had become the targets of the twenty-first century's most advanced kill technology.
The drone embodied the weaponry of globalization: high-tech in performance, sleek in appearance, and global in reach. It was mysterious, distant, deadly, and notoriously devoid of human presence. Its message of destruction resounded in its names: Predator and Reaper. For its Muslim targets, the UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle, its official title, had an alliterative quality—it meant death, destruction, disinformation, deceit, and despair. Flying at 50,000 feet above ground, and therefore out of sight of its intended victims, the drone could hover overhead unblinkingly for twenty-four hours, with little escaping its scrutiny before it struck. For a Muslim tribesman, this manner of combat not only was dishonorable but also smacked of sacrilege. By appropriating the powers of God through the drone, in its capacity to see and not be seen and deliver death without warning, trial, or judgment, Americans were by definition blasphemous.
In the United States, however, the drone was increasingly viewed as an absolutely vital weapon in fighting terrorism and keeping America safe. Support for it demonstrated patriotism, and opposition exposed one's anti-Americanism. Thus the debate surrounding the drone rested on its merits as a precisely effective killing machine rather than the human or emotional costs it inflicted. Drone strikes meant mass terror in entire societies across the world, yet little effort was made on the part of the perpetrators to calculate the political and psychological fallout, let alone assess the morality of public assassinations or the killing of innocent men, women, and children. Even those who rushed to rescue drone victims were considered legitimate targets of a follow-up strike. Nor did Americans seem concerned that they were creating dangerous precedents for other countries.
Instead, boasting with the pride of a football coach, CIA director, and later secretary of defense, Leon Panetta referred to the drones as "the only game in town." Fifty-five members of Congress organized what was popularly known as the Drone Caucus and received extensive funds for their campaigns from drone manufacturers such as General Atomics and Lockheed Martin. The drones' enthusiastic public advocates even included "liberal" academics and self-avowed "hippies" such as philosophy professor Bradley Strawser of Monterey, California. Americans exulted in the fact that the drone freed Americans of any risk. It could be operated safely and neatly from newly constructed high-tech, air- conditioned offices. Like any office worker in suit and tie, the "pilot" could complete work in his office and then go home to take his family bowling or join them for a barbecue in the backyard. The drone was fast becoming as American as apple pie.
Typical of its propensity for excess in matters of security, by 2012 America had commissioned just under 20,000 drones, about half of which were in use. They were proliferating at an alarming rate, with police departments, internal security agencies, and foreign governments placing orders. In September 2012 Iran unveiled its own reconnaissance and attack drone with a range of over 2,000 kilometers. The following month, France announced it was sending surveillance drones to Mali to assist the government in fighting the Tuareg rebels in the north. In October 2012 the United Kingdom doubled its number of armed drones in Afghanistan with the purchase of five Reaper drones from the United States, to be operated from a facility in the United Kingdom. It was estimated that by the end of the decade, some 30,000 U.S. drones would be patrolling American skies alone. There was talk in the press of new and deadly varieties, including the next generation of "nuclear- powered" drones. Despite public interest, drone operations were deliberately obscured.
Ignoring the moral debate, drone operators are equally infatuated with the weapon and the sense of power it gives them. It leaves them "electrified" and "adrenalized"—flying a drone is said to be "almost like playing the computer game Civilization," a "sci-fi" experience. A U.S. drone operator in New Mexico revealed the extent to which individuals across the world can be observed in their most private moments. "We watch people for months," he said. "We see them playing with their dogs or doing their laundry. We know their patterns like we know our neighbors' patterns. We even go to their funerals." Another drone operator spoke of watching people having sex at night through infrared cameras. The last statement, in particular, has to be read keeping in mind the importance Muslim tribal peoples give to notions of modesty and privacy.
The victims are treated like insects: the military slang for a successful strike, when the victim is blown apart on the screen in a display of blood and gore, is "bug splat." Muslim tribesmen were reduced to bugs or, in a Washington Post editorial by David Ignatius, cobras to be killed at will. Any compromise with the Taliban in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, officially designated as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is "like playing with a cobra," he wrote. And do we "compromise" with cobras? Ignatius asked. "No, you kill a cobra." Bugs, snakes, cockroaches, rats—such denigration of minorities has been heard before, and as recent history teaches, it never ends well for the abused people.
It is these tribal societies that form the subject of this book. Each is to be understood within its own cultural and historical context, with the main focus on four major groups: the Pukhtun, Yemenis, Somalis, and Kurds. Like their ancestors before them, these communities lived by an ancient code of honor embodied in the behavior of elders and, over the centuries, orally transmitted from generation to generation. According to anthropologists, these societies are organized along the principles of the segmentary lineage system, in which societies are defined by clans linked by common descent. All four societies have become embroiled in different ways in America's war on terror. The Pukhtun, Yemenis, and Somalis have been the main targets of American drone attacks, and there are reports of similar strikes against the Kurds. These various populations have been traumatized not only by American missiles but also by national army attacks, suicide bombers, and tribal warfare, forcing millions to flee their homes to seek shelter elsewhere and live in destitute conditions as hapless refugees. "Every day," say Muslim tribesmen, "is like 9/11 for us."
These societies live in areas administered by central governments whose ability to bomb, kidnap, humiliate, and rape tribal members at will has been enhanced by U.S. financial and military backing in the war on terror. For the tribes, this has been the worst of fates, leaving them emasculated and helpless, with every moral boundary crossed, every social structure attacked. The wholesale breakdown of their tribal system is not unlike the implosion of a galaxy, with fragments shooting off in unpredictable directions.
With their ancient practices, these tribal communities represent the very foundations of human history. In the most profound sense, they allow all societies a glimpse of their origins. The disruption of these fragile societies is a high-stakes gamble for civilization. Unless urgent and radical steps are taken to prevent this process and ensure a modicum of stability, the future for these communities looks grim; their codes of honor and revenge will lead to escalating global violence that, in the end, may well bring about the destruction of one of the oldest forms of human society.
The Thistle and the Drone
Just as the drone is an appropriate metaphor for the current age of globalization, the thistle captures the essence of tribal societies. It was aptly introduced by Leo Tolstoy in Hadji Murad, a fictionalized account of a Muslim tribal leader's struggles under the yoke of Imperial Russia. Tolstoy himself had witnessed the army's attempts to subjugate the independent Muslim tribes of the Caucasus in the nineteenth century and likened their courage, pride, and sense of egalitarianism to the prickly thistle. On a walk, while collecting a bouquet, the narrator of Hadji Murad leaned down "to pluck the flower. But this proved a very difficult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every side—even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand—but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibres one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed, and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful." At the end of his musing about the thistle, the narrator concludes: "But what energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life! ... 'What energy!' I thought. 'Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won't submit.'"
One of the hardiest, most self-reliant of flowers, the thistle has a beauty all its own, despite its lack of sparklingly bright colors, soft petals, or fragrance. Some find its cactus-like air of defiance, clearly a warning to passersby, rather appealing. The tribal Scots were impressed enough to make it their national symbol. In it they saw something of their own character as a proud, hardy, and martial people ready to protect their independence with grit and determination.
Indeed, the Scottish clans are frequently compared with other thistle-like tribes such as the Pukhtun, Somali, Kurd, and Bedouin. Sir Walter Scott in the early nineteenth century, for one, was "forcibly struck with the curious points of parallelism between the manners of the Afghan tribes and those of the ancient Highland clans. They resembled these Oriental mountaineers in their feuds, in their adoption of auxiliary tribes, in their laws, in their modes of conducting war, in their arms, and, in some respects, even in their dress." The British administrator-scholar and former governor of the North-West Frontier Province of India, Sir Olaf Caroe, who knew the Pukhtuns well, also compared them to the Scots in his classic book The Pathans. More recently, Kurds holding training exercises in the hills and caves of Qandil in northern Iraq have tried to inspire recruits with showings of Mel Gibson's Braveheart, a film about William Wallace, the legendary Scottish freedom fighter. In the film's final scene, Wallace is tortured to death but refuses to compromise, instead shouting with his last breath the one word tribesmen everywhere find closest to their hearts—"Freedom!"
Love of freedom, egalitarianism, a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans, a martial tradition, and a highly developed code of honor and revenge—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies under discussion here. Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.
For all that these thistle-like tribes knew, the Americans who arrived in their midst could have been from Mars, a reaction not unlike that captured by the 2011 Hollywood film Cowboys and Aliens, set in the Old West of the nineteenth century. In the opening scene, some Americans are attacked without provocation by aliens who use unknown technology to capture humans and fly them away for torture and interrogation. To the tribesmen, the Americans who came from nowhere in flying machines no one had seen before and abruptly disappeared with their catch were seen as aliens, with their abnormally large frames covered in strange padding, protruding wires, protective helmets, and peculiar weapons. These invaders could see at night through their glasses, speak into those wires, and command deadly airstrikes while resting on the ground. They appeared to have few social skills and neither offered nor received hospitality. Americans were loud, rude, and violent and expressed no interest in the land or its people. The tribes thought the reasons the Americans gave for invading their regions were incomprehensible: for example, 92 percent of the people surveyed in the Pukhtun-dominated areas of Kandahar and Helmand a decade after the war began in Afghanistan had never heard of 9/11 and therefore had no idea of its significance for Americans.
The Americans, even the few who stopped to remember their own Native American tribes, considered the Muslim tribes they encountered after 9/11 a remnant of the past and did not quite know what to make of them. In their dusty settlements—outside Kandahar, for instance—the Americans saw them as primitive characters living in God-forsaken regions, some families still inhabiting caves or mud huts. Their unsmiling men wore turbans and had long beards, the women were covered from head to toe and restricted to domestic chores, donkeys and camels were the main means of transport, and their code of behavior demanded savage forms of revenge. Stories circulating of the brutal slaughter of enemies or "honor killings" of women weighed heavy on many American minds. Most worrying of all, every one of these tribesmen was a potential al Qaeda sympathizer and therefore a terror suspect. In other words, the Muslim tribesman was at best a relic from another time and at worst an enemy to be eliminated.
These perceptions of each other are not mere cinematic or literary conjecture. They are confirmed by an authoritative American survey of Afghan and American soldiers in uniform that indicates a large chasm exists between the two and explains the alarming increase in the number of Afghan soldiers attacking American and NATO forces. These incidents are described as "green on blue"—color codes that are accepted by modern Western armies to denote neutral forces (green) and friendly forces (blue). By August 2012 these attacks had become the foremost cause of death of NATO troops. The frequency, unpredictable nature, and implications of these attacks have had a devastating impact on the morale of international forces. "Green on blue" attacks can only be understood in the context of how Afghans and Americans view each other. Afghans thought this of Americans:
They always shout and yell "Mother Fucker!" They are crazy.
U.S. soldiers swear at us constantly, saying "Fuck You!"
Their arrogance sickens us.
We [the Afghan National Army, ANA] once loaded and charged our weapons because we got tired of the U.S. Soldiers calling us "Mother Fuckers."
We have been ordered not to react to their insults; but we very much want to.
For years U.S. military convoys sped through the streets of villages, running over small children, while shouting profanities and throwing water bottles at people.
U.S. soldiers kill many innocent civilians if attacked. They kill everyone around.
They don't care about civilian casualties.
They take photos of women even when we tell them not to.
They tried to search a woman. We aimed our guns at them to stop it.
They pee all over, right in front of civilians, including females.
They pee in the water, polluting it. We told them to stop but they wouldn't listen.
Two U.S. Soldiers even defecated within public view.
[U.S. troops] constantly pass gas in front of ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces], in public, in front of elders.
They obviously were not raised right. What can we do with people like that? They are disgusting. They are a very low class of people.
They don't meet with the elders very often.
Often the U.S. lets itself get involved in personal feuds by believing an unreliable source. These people use the U.S. to destroy their personal enemies, not the insurgents.
Many ANSF respondents, the study found, "denigrated the personal integrity of U.S. Soldiers, and declared them to be cowards hiding behind their MRAPs [mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles], their close air support and overwhelming fire power." The Afghans thought that "U.S. Soldiers would not be brave if they had to fight under the same operational conditions as the ANSF did, without body armor, with older weapons, light-skinned vehicles, poor logistical support, and no dedicated air cover."
Excerpted from THE THISTLE AND THE DRONE by Akbar Ahmed Copyright © 2013 by Akbar Ahmed. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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