How The 'War On Terror' Became A War On 'Tribal Islam'

Steve Inskeep speaks with Akbar Ahmed about his book The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam. In the late 1970s, Ahmed was in charge of the tribal area of Pakistan known as South Waziristan — a region he says is the most dangerous place in the world.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

News stories about Waziristan repeat a few stock phrases. Waziristan is said to be one of Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, in the mountains near Afghanistan where men rule, women have no rights and American drones fly overhead searching for militants.

Akbar Ahmed argues the stock phrases miss a lot. He's a scholar of Islam, a former Pakistani ambassador, and a former administrator of Waziristan. His new book "The Thistle and the Drone" argues that drone strikes are the wrong way to pacify tribal zones.

What are some things that you think Americans completely do not get about Waziristan?

AKBAR AHMED: Two or three really fundamental issues that they don't get. One, that the people of Waziristan, the ordinary people, are really suffering. One day they're bombed by the drones, the second day by their own military for all kinds of terrorist activity. Third day by suicide bombers. And in the end, there's so much despair that a large section of the population has actually left. They're living as destitute refugees in neighboring towns. It's a very difficult situation.

INSKEEP: Well, this is reminding me of another buzz phrase that is commonly mentioned in news articles about this part of the world. Waziristan may be described as a lawless area, or part of the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. Is that an accurate description?

AHMED: Not entirely. It was on one level, yes, lawless. On another level, it was very much a society which had certain balances within it. There was a tribal leadership based in lineage. There was a religious leadership. There were representatives of a central government what I was in charge of Waziristan. There was, by and large, law and order and it held. I was there for over two years.

What you are seeing today is a breakdown of these pillars of authority. You're seeing the tribal leaders being killed, something like 400 have been killed in Waziristan; mosques and madrassas are being attacked, so that a lot of the religious leaders, who advocate compassion and bringing people together or peace, they have been killed. And, of course, the central government representative or political agent has been made impotent.

INSKEEP: Now, you just used a phrase that not many people alive would be able to use. You said when I was in charge of Waziristan. When was that?

AHMED: I was in charge of Waziristan late in the 1970s up to 1980, as political agent. The political agent was a post created by the British to deal with the tribal areas. It was one of their most brilliant administrative innovations, where one officer was given tremendous authority. He, in fact, represented civil, executive, financial, judicial, all authority rolled into one.

This is what Americans in Afghanistan never understood because they fought the battle in the Afghanistan entirely through the military. They were not using political officers who understood the language, the culture and the tribes.

This whole debate about drones, for example, is just missing this aspect of the debate completely. So we hear the debates about keeping Americans safe, keeping boots off the ground, etc., etc., and the best way of dealing with this is to use drones. But what is happening on the other side, and the voices from that side of the world, are not being heard at all.

INSKEEP: OK, let's talk about that a little bit because there's this society that was under pressure or falling apart, if I'm not mistaken, even before the United States developed drones with weapons on them. When did things begin to fall apart along the border with Afghanistan, inside Pakistan?

AHMED: I would say, Steve, that in the tribal areas, society sort of chugged along over the last decade or two. But after 9/11, things became really very bad very quickly. Now remember, even before then, these areas were largely left to their own devices, which meant few hospitals if any, few schools if any. The last thing you need is to throw bombs at them and throw missiles and hit them with drones because you are then shattering whatever remains of that society.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what happens when you begin raining drone fire on a region like Waziristan. And let's talk about it first from the proponents' point of view. What are the advantages, if you are a foreign power like the United States, to using drones rather than sending thousands of troops into a region?

AHMED: The American argument is plain and it's clear. And it's a strong argument, that none of our troops are involved, there's no danger to them. We're sitting in the Midwest somewhere, we press a button and people are killed across the world, and we achieve what we want to achieve which is to kill the bad guys.

The reality is that for every one, quote-unquote, "bad guy" who's taken out, there may be a hundred ordinary mothers, children, relatives who are killed. So when the drone falls, it doesn't just fall one day and goes away for the next 10 days. Steve, what happens is in fact, the drones are hovering and buzzing overhead round-the-clock, so that kids cannot sleep. They're traumatized.

They're terrorizing entire generations because they say we're living in fear; fear of where this will strike next. And I think as someone very concerned about trying to bring some sense of peace and order and humanity to the situation, we really have to step back and begin to say: Is this the most effective way of dealing with terrorism, and is it working?

INSKEEP: Are there some pretty well-documented bad guys who've been killed this way?

AHMED: Yes. But how many other bad guys have emerged, Steve? If you kill five or 10 or 15 or 30, you may have then alienated 100,000, 200,000, 300,000. Someone has to do the mathematics.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Professor Ahmed, we began by talking about Waziristan, this zone that if Americans have any knowledge of it at all, probably look at it askance. Strange people, very remote, a religion that is scary to a lot of people, a view of civil rights and women's rights and humans' rights that is just not in accord with the United States at all. They don't invite a lot of American sympathy. It sounds like you do have a great sympathy for that people. Why?

AHMED: I do because they're my people. My wife is from Swat. That's the people that have produced Malala Yousafzai. I'd like to know how many Americans would stand up, 15-year-old girls, and challenge the Taliban on their territory.

INSKEEP: Remind people who Malala Yousafzai...

AHMED: Malala Yousafzai was this young girl in Swat, whose only crime was that she was determined not to only educate herself but other girls. And she was shot. And in spite of that, she continues her campaign. And the Taliban have said when she comes back, we'll finish the job. So it's an ongoing battle. It's a battle that people there are very aware of and they have joined it.

My daughter is there doing exactly the same thing. She's from Swat. My wife is from Swat. So I know these people. So to simplify that entire region and dismiss them as potentially terrorists or not in sympathy with modernity is just sheer ignorance.

So I think we need to, again, revise our strategy, focus on things that can strengthen those elements in society that will create the kind of vision where we in the United States and they over there are able to be more compatible.

INSKEEP: Akbar Ahmed is author of "The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam."

Thanks very much for coming by.

AHMED: Thank you so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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