It would be better to help rebuild the pillars of tribal society.
Article by: AKBAR AHMED Star Tribune Commentary Updated: June 1, 2013
When people talk about shrinking the drone program, as President Obama promised recently, they are mostly concerned with placating Pakistan. But the drone war is alive and well in the remote corners of Pakistan, where strikes have caused the most lasting damage.
Drone strikes like Wednesday’s, in Waziristan, are destroying already weak tribal structures and throwing communities into disarray throughout Pakistan’s tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan. The chaos and rage they produce endangers the Pakistani government and fuels anti-Americanism. Similar destruction is occurring in other traditional tribal societies like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. The tribes on the periphery of these nations have long struggled for more autonomy from the central government, first under colonial rule and later against the modern state. The war on terror has intensified that conflict.
|Photo Kirsty Wigglesworth AP|
These tribal societies are organized into clans defined by common descent; they maintain stability through similar structures of authority, and they have defined codes of honor revolving around hospitality to guests and revenge against enemies.
In recent decades, these societies have undergone huge disruptions as the traditional leadership has come under attack by violent groups like the Taliban, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia’s Al-Shabab, not to mention full-scale military invasions. America has deployed drones into these power vacuums, causing ferocious backlashes against central governments while destroying any positive image of the United States that may have once existed.
American precision-guided missiles launched into Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal areas aim to eliminate what are called, with marvelous imprecision, the “bad guys.” Several decades ago I, too, faced the problem of catching a notorious “bad guy” in Waziristan. I was then a government administrator in charge of the area. We were able to get our “bad guy” without firing a single shot by relying on the three pillars of authority that have traditionally provided stability in Pashtun tribal society: elders, religious leaders and the central government.
Over the past few decades, these pillars have weakened. And in 2004, with the Pakistani army’s unprecedented assault and American drones’ targeting suspected supporters of Al-Qaida in Waziristan, the pillars of authority began to crumble.
In the vacuum that followed, the Pakistani Taliban emerged. Its first targets were tribal authorities. Approximately 400 elders have been killed in Waziristan alone, a near-decapitation of traditional society.
Large segments of the tribal population were displaced to shantytowns surrounding large cities, bringing with them traditional tribal feuds and a desire for revenge against those they saw as responsible for their desperate situation.
As the pace of the violence in the tribal areas increased, the Pakistani Taliban sought to strike the central government. They kidnapped Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, stormed Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and assaulted a naval base in Karachi. In 2009, fighters attacked a military mosque, killing 36 people, including 17 children. Taking hold of children’s hair and shooting them point-blank, they yelled, “Now you know how it feels when other people are killed.”
The tribesmen of Waziristan have for years seen the Pakistani government as colluding on drone strikes with the Americans, against whom their tribal kin are fighting across the border in Afghanistan. Therefore, they take revenge against the military and other government targets. Those at the receiving end of the strikes see them as unjust, immoral and dishonorable — killing innocent people who have never themselves harmed Americans, while the drone operators sit safely halfway across the world, terrorizing and killing by remote control.
Obama should not assume that his pledge to scale back the drone war will have an appreciable impact on America’s image or Pakistan’s security unless the strikes stop and the old pillars of tribal authority can gradually be rebuilt.
Until then, American policymakers would do well to heed a Pashto proverb: “The Pashtun who took revenge after a hundred years said: I took it quickly.”
Akbar Ahmed is Islamic Studies chair at American University. He is the former Pakistani high commissioner to Britain and author of “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.” He wrote this article for the New York Times.