Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, should be required reading for American soldiers, citizens and, above all, every member of the Obama administration.
Written from the perspective of both an academic (Professor Ahmed is a leading anthropologist) and a government official (he was political agent to South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Area, and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland), as well as with the inestimable passion of a poet (in both written and visual verse), this book provides critical insights into how US Cold War tactics opposing communism have transmogrified into tactics opposing terrorists.
In the Cold War, the US funded and supported any regime, dictatorship or democracy, that opposed communism. From US support for the cruel and brutal dictator in Cuba, Fulgencio Batista, to the Shah of Iran whose support by the US still haunts US-Iran relations, to the leader of Iraq whom the US first supported and then overthrew, Saddam Hussein, there was no virtue not sacrificed in the American quest to subvert and defeat communism. Today, that zeal – and the money and effort backing it – has morphed into US tactics to defeat terrorism.
Under the Obama administration, the principal instrument of these tactics is the drone. Professor Ahmed’s book provides a searing indictment of the use of that instrument.
A droning misunderstanding
It is increasingly clear that drone use is appallingly misunderstood by the US government. Democrats believe they are regaining their bona fidesin the national security field while not putting boots on the ground in dangerous areas; Republicans believe we are killing terrorists so grudgingly accept what the Democrats are doing. They are both badly mistaken.
|Listening Post – Game of drones|
Whether it is the devastating damage the drones are doing to tribal societies around the world – Professor Ahmed’s principal point – or the damage they are doing to both the warrior ethos in the US Armed Forces and to the international reputation of the US, the results are terrifyingly negative all around – and for very little payoff in terms of stopping terrorism, perhaps even none at all. Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld posed this conundrum when he asked in 2003 how killing one terrorist and creating ten more at the same time, worked out to be a success.
Moreover, no one in the US government is apparently the least bit concerned about blowback or about the inevitable adoption of this technology by a host of other countries for use in their domestic situations or, eventually, against the United States. Nor does there appear to be much concern about drones operating inside the United States itself.
Neither in the international use nor the inevitable domestic use (drones are already being used inside the US for surveillance activities), has the US developed the ethics, law, and standing operational procedures needed to preclude abuse and error. Let’s briefly examine each of these challenges. First, Professor Ahmed’s.
Attack of the drones
Couched in terms of the centre vs the periphery – or the state vs certain of its domestic antagonists – the struggles illuminated by The Thistle and The Drone derive from tribal societies fighting against too-swiftly encroaching modernity or, in many cases, simply authoritarian power grabs emanating from the central government. Whether the Rohingya in Burma, the Tuareg in Mali, or the Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, these tribal societies abhor such encroachment, fight back and, in many cases, are crippled and eventually expunged by the superior power of the centre. Think, for example, of the US Indian Wars from 1866 to 1890 and of the tribal societies thus expunged, truncated, or put on reservations that today continue to shame the central government that created them. “Indian Wars” are occurring today all across the globe, many of them aided and abetted by the US in its often misguided zeal to combat terrorism. The drone has become the public image as well as the tactical workhorse of this US assistance.
Little known by most citizens who have never served in the armed forces – now far and away the vast majority of Americans – this use of drones also destroys the warrior ethos of the armed forces. USAF Lieutenant Colonel Jason Armagost has chronicled this phenomenon eloquently in his short article “Things to Pack When You’re Bound for Baghdad”, appearing in War, Literature & the Arts.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable may be apocryphal but like most myths this particular one is nonetheless important. The same sort of bond that held Sir Gawain to Arthur holds Army and Marine squads together, puts most fighter pilots in the cockpit, and motivates sailors from submarines to flattops. This is “the bond of vulnerability for state purposes” or, better expressed, for something beyond oneself. In short, when we ask our young people to kill for the state, we had best know what we are about.
Yet the “war” in which we are involved – against terrorists – is a war against a methodology that has killed fewer Americans in all of our history, colonial and national, than a single recent year of highway accidents.
If a soldier is not vulnerable – if he or she is sitting thousands of miles away from the battlefield at a computer terminal, for example – that critical bond is quickly destroyed. The recent flap over the medal for heroism for drone operators reflects this reality. If a nation wants to destroy its armed forces – or, worse, limit them to misogynists and masochists – all it need do is proceed down such a path.
Then there is the reality of no tactic or technology has never not been duplicated or countered. There are already nations following the US example and fielding drones, armed and otherwise. I sometimes tell colleagues that if they are enamoured of the technology of drones, just wait until one flies over your house and delivers its precisely guided missile or bomb on top of you.
Moreover, there is the law and protocol.
The US operates drones across international borders almost every day. Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs) are violated with no thought whatsoever. Rationales offered include the context of global war in which the US is involved. Under that rationale, apparently we reserve the right to fly across any border, anytime, and seek out and kill people.
We fly against ally, friend, and enemy. There is no apparent differentiating of where we can catch and kill a terrorist. That is the sole protocol. Too, if we kill a handful of innocent civilians at the same time, so be it. That is the cost of war. That is collateral damage.
The war at home
Yet the “war” in which we are involved – against terrorists – is a war against a methodology that has killed fewer Americans in all of our history, colonial and national, than a single recent year of highway accidents. And for this we are sacrificing our reputation, our values, and perhaps in the long run the ability to protest successfully and within the law when the same technology is turned on us.
Lastly, there is the homeland.
When I recently asked a law enforcement officer what he thought of drones operating domestically, he replied, simply, “Cool. Eyes and ears above the byways.”
I asked him, “How long do you think it will be before someone wants to arm them?”
He smiled and I think I knew what was coming. He said: “It’s already come up. One of the guys at a recent briefing stated how cool he thought it would be if we not only surveilled criminal activity but if we could ‘pop’ the criminal in the act.”
Such “popping of the criminal in the act” is just around the corner. Popping the wrong person, or killing innocents who happen to be around, would be like any other police action, the sad breaks of the game.
In the final analysis, whether we consider the international repercussions, the reputational damage, the lack of law and ethical standards, the damage to the armed forces, or the destruction of tribal societies, drone use is fraught with complexities and problems. Our government needs to sort these soundly and well – and swiftly. It is already thousands of deaths behind the power curve.
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson is distinguished adjunct professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary. Previously, during a 31-year career in the US army, he served as chief of staff to US Secretary of State Colin Powell.