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Are Drones Winning the War on Terror?

drone

Illustration by Val Bochkov

Should drones be the U.S. military weapons of choice for the war on terrorism? 

The argument from the White House is a resounding “yes” in the face of shrinking military budgets, popular opposition to more troops, and the perception that drones help keep America safe.

But there are serious drawbacks to relying on drones, says Akbar Ahmed, a world-renowned author, diplomat, and scholar.

In his new book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Ahmed asserts that the United States is fighting the wrong war with the wrong methods against the wrong enemy.

"The debate on the drone swirl around the precision of the technology and the ability to keep boots off the ground but aren't taking into consideration the broader impact of the drone campaign," Ahmed said. "For every innocent person killed, it creates 100, 200, 1,000, or 10,000 new enemies for the United States."

Ahmed, American University School of International Service’s Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, presents a fresh and unprecedented paradigm for understanding the war on terror in the third volume of his trilogy with Brookings Press, examining U.S. relations with the Muslim world after 9/11.

The book delves into the historical tension and conflict between Muslim tribes found on the borders of nations and their central governments. Ahmed further argues that America’s war on terror has exacerbated and expanded the already broken relationship between center and periphery across the Muslim world. 

WATCH: Ahmed Explains Effects of Drone Warfare at Brookings Institution

American University hosted a book launch on April 9 with SIS Dean James Goldgeier. The event featured a panel, including Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and Professor Randolph Persaud, director designate of the Comparative and Regional Studies Program in SIS.

The book comes at a critical time as the U.S. readies to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014.

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 that have resisted invaders and conquerors for centuries and have now become the primary target of the drone. The drone becomes a metaphor for America and its war. 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.

"Tribal people are afraid to gather in groups of any kind for fear of being hit by the drone. It is causing immense psychological damage to the communities," Ahmed said. "And the drone is being introduced into an already volatile situation as the central government conducts military operations in the Tribal Areas to combat 'militants.'"

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. The tribal people 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.

"There are peaceful methods for combating the terrorism and promoting stability which the U.S. should support instead of military campaigns, such as education programs for the peripheral peoples," Ahmed said. "Forman Christian College, my college which was founded by Americans, has been educating Pakistanis for generations who come away with a positive image of what America is and stands for in the world, an image which we have strayed from over the past decade."