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Debating the Thistle and the Drone: A Response to the Distortions of Christine Fair



By Harrison Akins

Nov 15, 2014

As senior researcher for The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam by Akbar Ahmed (Brookings Institution Press, 2013), I watched the many responses and reviews to the book with interest. They have been overwhelmingly positive, including a cover story review by Malise Ruthven in The New York Review of Books, but there have also been critical reviews. Given the importance of the topics discussed—drones, terrorism, violence across the Muslim world, and the future direction of America’s war on terror—scholarly debate on these issues and critiques which engage with the ideas, interpretation, and opinions of the author is welcomed and encouraged.

Unfortunately, one particular review published in the academic journal Small Wars & Insurgencies, “Drones, spies, terrorists, and second-class citizenship in Pakistan” by Christine Fair, a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, neither engages with the ideas of the book nor treats the author with respect, though it was written with the veneer of scholarly method and approach.  While it is clear that Professor Fair, for some unknown reason, is not shy about sharing her contempt for Professor Ahmed in a very glib fashion on social media, having referred to the book as “The Thimble and the Dumbass” on Twitter, this article is shocking in its cavalier attitude to the text and near slanderous claims about the author. As a well-respected and prominent academic who appears frequently in the media as an expert on Pakistan, Professor Fair’s factual errors and unsubstantiated claims in reviewing The Thistle and the Drone need to be addressed, which I will do in this article.

Most flagrantly, through what can be no more than a cursory and incomplete reading of the text, Professor Fair ignores the fundamental thesis of the book. The Thistle and the Drone examines America’s war on terror and the tribal communities on the peripheries of the Muslim world from which much of the violence is emanating. It argues that, rather than Islam, this violence is a product of the broken relationship between central governments and tribal peripheries, which has been exacerbated by the involvement of the United States. Nowhere in her review of The Thistle and the Drone does Professor Fair refer to this thesis which forms the basis for all of the arguments and recommendations which Professor Ahmed makes in the book, including those about the use of the drone.

Before discussing the multitude of inaccuracies and distortions in Professor Fair’s review, it is first necessary to briefly expand on the thesis of The Thistle and the Drone. Throughout history, tribal communities, residing deep in the mountains and deserts in clan or family groups and living by a code of behaviour emphasizing honour, hospitality, and revenge, have strongly resisted outside encroachment in their territory, dating to the time of various caliphates and empires. A cursory glance at the early failures of British expeditions into Afghanistan and other colonial adventures and misadventures elsewhere in Asia and Africa is testament to the violent struggles between the colonizing states of Europe and the people they sought to subject to their rule. The subjugation of these tribal communities at the hands of brutal military tactics was too often a bloody affair causing the deaths of thousands, if not millions, of people.

At the creation of the post-colonial modern state in the 20th century, the dominant groups within the colony, often those who occupied the settled towns and cities and were educated and worked under the European colonial power controlled the economics and politics of the newly formed country. They found themselves holding the undisputed reins of power. These leaders often times were a different ethnic group, spoke a different language, or even had a different religion to the tribes on the periphery. They saw the tribal communities as a threat to the cohesiveness of the new state and a great hindrance towards their efforts to modernize their nations. At the hands of the central government, the tribes were forcibly settled and assimilated to the dominant language and culture, strategically neglected, or even exterminated. As the jubilation over independence subsided, a cycle of violence between the central government and the tribes often took its place. The era of independence was often no better, if not worse, than the colonial past for these oppressed communities.

After 9/11, the United States, backing the military and intelligence services of central governments, looked to these peripheral regions—which were already in a state of turmoil—in their hunt for terrorists. The involvement of the US has exacerbated and expanded the violence between centre and periphery but is not the cause of it. Unfortunately, the US has not demonstrated that it has any understanding of this history and dynamic between center and periphery in the conduct of the war on terror over the past decade. Rather, the US continues to implement the same failed policies in new conflict areas. I would challenge anyone, including Professor Fair, to take one glance at the current state of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, FATA, or other regions of the Muslim world where America is engaged and argue that its policies to halt the violence have been anything but a failure.

It is only by understanding the historical context of the conflicts between center and periphery, something which far pre-dates America’s involvement in these societies, and the motivating factors for further acts of terror, that we are able to come up with any effective solutions for the tragic violence which continues to rage in many parts of both the Muslim and non-Muslim world. If we are able to understand the root causes of the violence, it is clear why the drones, despite what Professor Fair has argued in a number of essays and articles, are an ineffective way to promote peace and stability in the region. Drones as well as training, arms, and other assistance given by the US to central governments are too often used in local conflicts between centre and periphery, contributing to a cycle of violence that seems unending and has made life for so many in these societies unbearable.

The bulk of the research data supporting Professor Ahmed’s thesis is found in chapters 3, 4, and 5. From Professor Fair’s review, there is no evidence that she actually read these chapters all that closely, having skipped over 200 pages of text in her discussion of The Thistle and the Drone, from pg. 97 to pg. 305. For the record, it was in these glossed over pages in which the historical arc of the conflict between centre and periphery from the time of the emirate through colonization and into the modern state and the current war on terror was laid out and which forms the basis for the recommendations which Professor Ahmed makes in Chapter 6. Waziristan, the core case study of the book, is one of 40 case studies which all demonstrate the same tensions between centre and periphery, including other regions where the drone is used such as Yemen and Somalia. While Professor Fair only focuses on Waziristan as her essay is primarily a review of scholarship studying the use of the drone in FATA, what is written about Waziristan and FATA in The Thistle and the Drone cannot be fully understood if separated from the broader thesis of the book, as Professor Fair has done having selected only bits and pieces in order to support her own assumptions.

Besides omitting the entire thesis of The Thistle and the Drone in her review, Professor Fair has misrepresented the arguments of the book. She seems taken with the idea that Professor Ahmed’s arguments are “orientalist” and his aim is to restore the “old colonial system” in Pakistan. Professor Fair writes:

“Ahmed’s idyllic fondness for the repressive colonial era is out of touch with contemporary critics who believe the only way to pacify the region is by integrating the residents of FATA and making them fully enfranchised citizens of the state. The recent Crisis Group report is clear that only way to proceed is by ‘incorporating FATA into the constitutional mainstream, abolishing the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR, 1901) and replacing it by the Pakistan Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act’. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has denounced the FCR as a ‘bad law nobody can defend’, except it would seem Akbar Ahmed.”

This contention that Professor Ahmed wishes to continue to support the oppressive Frontier Crimes Regulations in FATA, which gives the central government such broad powers, and opposes the extension of enfranchisement and full rights to the residents of FATA is false. On the contrary, Professor Ahmed writes on pg. 95 of The Thistle and the Drone:

“Some things need to change. Rights for women and those not on the tribal charter need to be introduced and vigorously protected. The Frontier Crimes Regulations that governs the Tribal Areas, the excessive and unchecked powers of political officers, the role of traditional elders who so easily compromised with the administration, the population’s limited participation in elections and, above all, the sense of isolation must go. In any case, little of these past traditions and structures will survive considering the scale of the changes taking place in the region. However, wise and authentic tribal leadership, genuinely educated and scholarly religious leaders, and efficient and honest political officers are crucial to the reconstruction of Waziristan society.”

I also must point out the irony in an American who writes about Pakistan calling a Pakistani writing about Pakistan an orientalist. I feel the need to remind Professor Fair what Edward Said writes about Orientalism in his seminal work:

“To the extent that Western scholars were aware of contemporary Orientals or Oriental movements of thought and culture, these were perceived either as silent shadows to be animated by the Orientalist, brought into reality by him, or as a kind of cultural and intellectual proletariat useful for the Orientalist’s grander interpretative activity, necessary for his performance as superior judge, learned man, powerful cultural will.”

Said writes elsewhere in Orientalism, “These contemporary Orientalist attitudes flood the press and the popular mind. Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization.” I would advise Professor Fair to assess her own work in light of the above quotes, such as when she describes the victims of drone strikes in Pakistan as “terrorist garbage” or in her article for The Atlantic, “The Case for Calling Them Nitwits,” when she reduces what she calls “the jihadist community” to a caricature of incompetent porn addicts who have sex with cows and donkeys. Such crude stereotypes serve only as a hindrance to understanding the actual source of the violence and the impact of the war on terror on millions of innocent people around the Muslim world.

In fact, the entire purpose of The Thistle and the Drone is to demonstrate that these beleaguered communities—those in FATA and the other societies discussed in the book—are denied their full rights and equal participation by the modern state and this is the problem which needs to be solved in order to establish peace in these societies and, as Professor Ahmed writes, “win the war on terror.” They need to be better integrated into the state, not further marginalized or denigrated. Despite their potential to play a positive role in the state, these tribal communities are denied the opportunity to do so due to the policies of central governments eager to tap into the benefits of globalization. This point is argued extensively throughout the book’s 369 pages.

The arguments which Professor Ahmed make in the book which Professor Fair misinterprets as the restoration of the old colonial system, concern the need for a functioning and effective structure through which law and order can be maintained, a structure that is unfortunately non-existent in FATA today. Instead, the Pakistani government has relied upon a series of military invasions of Waziristan that have proven ineffective in stemming the violence emanating into the rest of Pakistan with the drones only making the situation worse. Only by understanding how a society traditionally operates can such a structure be established that is largely viewed as legitimate by the population. It is for this purpose that Professor Ahmed’s experiences in the field are used in this study, as a benchmark to understand how the tribal societies of FATA have traditionally functioned in the past and how they have changed within a single generation. By understanding the contrast, the reader is able to see the specific problems that need to be addressed in order to begin to understand how to re-establish an administrative structure for the periphery.

Professor Fair also objects to Professor Ahmed’s use of “tribe” in his analysis of Muslim societies that today commonly define themselves on the basis of clan or family identity and descent from a common ancestor such as the Pashtun, Somalis, or Yemenis. These societies, Professor Ahmed writes, have been described by anthropologists as “segmentary lineage systems.” Professor Ahmed in the book provided an extensive justification for use of this term and its relevance in the modern era, which Professor Fair does not engage with. Instead she criticizes Professor Ahmed’s use of concepts such as “tribal Islam”, “tribal Muslim”, and “segmentary lineage systems,” writing: “Ahmed’s confidence in the changeless categories of tribes and tribalness is frustratingly out of touch if not outright Orientalist.”

This simplistic dismissal of a social scientist’s models without actually engaging in why he is using them and their place within the field of anthropology is a further indication of Professor Fair’s superficial analysis. The contention that Professor Ahmed constructed a “changeless” category is also false. Professor Ahmed states:

“When I discuss ‘segmentary lineage systems’ and ‘models’, readers must not lose sight of the fact that these are abstract terms employed to provide an idea of reality on the basis of surveys and aggregates. So when I place communities into categories, keep in mind that this is little more than an exercise in imagination and merely the basis for further discussion and debate. These categories are not watertight and frequently overlap.”

In yet another misrepresentation of Professor Ahmed’s argument, Professor Fair indicates that Professor Ahmed’s so-called “Orientalism” prohibits him from seeing groups like the Pashtun as modern and dynamic. She writes: “Whereas for Ahmed, the Pashtun is a rustic with no desire other than to remain far from the reaches of the state, more thoughtful analysis posits the Pashtun as one of the most globalized communities of Pakistan whose diaspora expands from Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Southwest Asia, and onward to Europe and North America.”

Professor Fair apparently missed the sub-section of Chapter 1 titled “Muslim Tribes in History” in which Professor Ahmed discusses the regional and global impact that the Pashtun have played in history, as well as other tribal people elsewhere in the Muslim world. The Pashtun, he writes, “have produced celebrated artists, sportsmen, statesmen, Sufi saints, and advocates of nonviolence.” He goes on to recount the names of famous Pashtun who have in the 20th and 21st centuries been the leaders of nations, global sports icons, and famous movie stars.

Professor Fair additionally dismisses Professor Ahmed’s arguments by writing that his time as the Pakistani government official in charge of Waziristan, the Political Agent, was from 1978-1980 and he is therefore “out of touch” and his “‘in-country’ expertise is dated”. She goes on to state that Professor Ahmed’s “claim to fame is that he served for two years as a ‘political officer’ in Waziristan in 1979 and 1980 and who is now a professor at American University in the School of International Service.”

She ignores the fact that Waziristan is not Professor Ahmed’s only experience in FATA during a 35-year career as a member of the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP), having also previously served as the Political Agent in Orakzai Agency and conducted extensive fieldwork in Mohmand Agency for his PhD in anthropology. He also served as Commissioner in three divisions in Baluchistan and as Founding Director General of the National Center for Rural Development in Pakistan. Additionally, he held various senior postings in the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) as well as serving as Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK.

In addition to his years of government service, Professor Ahmed is a world-renowned anthropologist and has written dozens of books about tribal society and Islam since the 1970s, based in anthropological fieldwork. For Professor Fair to dismiss Professor Ahmed’s anthropological methodology and use and development of anthropological models when she has stated herself that her PhD is in “South Asian literatures” is odd indeed.

It is clear that Professor Fair has critiqued The Thistle and the Drone based on what she assumes it is about rather than what it is actually arguing. I find it very difficult to believe that she “carefully” read this book as she claims in her article. It is worrying that such a prominent academic would publish such a poorly written and researched article. Her antipathy towards Professor Ahmed remains a mystery but I can only hope that the next time she chooses to review one of Professor Ahmed’s works, or indeed write anything else, she will utilize scholarly methods reflective of her scholarly position and reputation.

Harrison Akins is the Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and was senior researcher for Professor Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings 2013).

1.  Malise Ruthven, “Terror: The Hidden Source,” The New York Review of Books, October 24, 2013.

2.  C. Christine Fair, “Drones, spies, terrorists, and second-class citizenship in Pakistan,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 25, Issue 1, May 2014, pgs. 226-229