US should replace drone strikes in Pakistan with outreach to tribal areas

The Pakistani Taliban's vow to avenge the death of its No. 2 leader – killed by a US drone strike Wednesday – and boycott government peace efforts shows the ineffective nature of US drone policy. The US must stop the strikes and build up tribal regions in Pakistan and other countries.

M. Abbass/AP
Pakistani protesters burn a representation of a US flag to condemn a US drone strike in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan that killed Taliban leader Waliur Rehman May 30. Op-ed contributors Akbar Ahmed and Harrison Akins write: 'Washington should work with allied central governments within traditional tribal structures to help maintain law and order in tribal areas, rather than continuing...drone strikes...that alienate entire tribal populations.'

Praise goes to President Obama for his long-overdue decision to limit drone strikes. But it's clear from this week's strike that killed the Pakistani Taliban's No. 2 leader, Wali-Ur Rehman Mehsud, that the unfortunate program is still operative.

Mr. Obama says that America must end its “perpetual war” on terrorism, but continuing the drone program makes that very difficult to do. Where one terrorist is killed by a drone, a hundred are created in his place. The drone has proven to be an uneconomic, inhuman, and ultimately ineffective method of fighting the war on terror. Case in point: Today, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban has said the group will avenge the death of its leader killed Wednesday and will not participate in government peace initiatives.

The United States has been bearing down on terrorists militarily for more than a decade. What it needs, however, is a comprehensive and long-term political strategy that understands the historical and social context of violence in regions that breed terrorists – particularly in the remote tribal areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Then it must find a way to more effectively deal with tribes.

What America’s intense drone program has shown so far, is that Washington has misunderstood tribal groups and their histories, creating more enemies than supporters. 

Take the example of Tariq al-Fadhli, a leader of Yemen’s southern tribal resistance against the central government. In 2010, he filmed a video of himself and his fellow tribesmen standing at attention before the American flag – the Star Spangled Banner echoing in the background.

Though the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh would accuse Mr. al-Fadhli, a former associate of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan during the 1980s, of being a terrorist, al-Fadhli saw the US as an ally in his struggle against the Yemeni government for an independent South Yemen.

Referring to his days in Afghanistan, al-Fadhli stated, “The Americans were our allies back then, and what I am doing now by raising the American flag is a continuation of this old alliance.”

A year later, al-Fadhli filmed a video of himself burning the American flag. His reasons: He had learned that the US had cluster bombed a village in Yemen’s Abyan Province in 2009 that killed an estimated 55 people, including 21 children and 14 women; he also cited US support for Mr. Saleh’s government.

In Yemen and other countries, US cruise missiles and drones have effectively dumped buckets of gasoline on an already raging fire between tribal communities and their central governments.

Historically, there has always been tension between independent and fierce tribes of mountains and deserts – such as the Yemeni, Somali, Kurd, and Pashtun tribes – and centers of power. After independence, post-colonial governments in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia faced fierce resistance from these tribes, with their codes of honor and revenge, as governments forcefully attempted to assert the writ of the state. At times, hundreds of thousands of people died in brutal struggles.

Amid such bloody conflicts, tribes looked to the beacon of democracy and human rights – America – as their natural ally against oppressive governments.

For instance, the prominent Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, who led armed campaigns against Iraqi and Iranian governments in the mid-20th century, would often tell the US government that the Kurds were “ready to become the 51st state,” and he “trusted no other major power.” In 1946, as the US ambassador in Tehran would later recall, “When I asked where he thought of going, he said, ‘We’d like to go to the United States.’ I asked, ‘Do you mean all the Kurds? That means many hundred thousand.’ He nodded affirmatively.”

Prior to 9/11, US assistance landed on the side of persecuted Muslim tribes – such was the case for the Pashtun of Afghanistan facing a Soviet invasion, the Kurds in northern Iraq being slaughtered by Saddam Hussein, Somalis facing starvation from war-fueled famine, and the Albanians of Kosovo being massacred by Serbian forces.

After President Bush declared the war on terror in the wake of 9/11, the US allied with the agents of the tribes’ destruction – central governments. The aim was to help these governments combat terrorist elements on their periphery who the US saw as allied with Al Qaeda – but the effect was also to alienate entire regions.

In Waziristan in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the heart of the US drone campaign, innocent Pashtun have lived under the constant threat of deadly strikes, afraid to send children to school, go to market, gather for funerals, or even sleep near one another at night, according to studies. Hundreds of thousands have fled the region.

Drones have also created historic levels of anti-Americanism. In Pakistan, where Pakistanis claim the war on terror has killed nearly 50,000 people since 9/11, many of the leading candidates in the May election ran anti-drone campaigns, including winner Nawaz Sharif. Pakistanis say their national sovereignty has been compromised; they feel emasculated in their inability to stop the intrusion.

While Obama has taken an important forward step by scaling back drones, the drone is just one small part of a much larger problem between governments and tribes on the periphery. Even if Obama ordered the drones stopped today, tribal regions would still bear the brunt of violence from government military attacks, suicide bombings, and traditional tribal rivalry.

What is needed most to restore stability and peace are long-term and far-reaching political measures on the part of central governments – with strong backing from Washington. 

However, in order for the process of exploring this different paradigm to begin, the drones must cease. The US can, and must, play a leading role in tribal regions.

Washington should work with allied central governments within traditional tribal structures to help maintain law and order in tribal areas, rather than continuing even limited drone strikes or military actions that alienate entire tribal populations. It should support education and other development projects. Above all, it should support a fair and just civil administration for these beleaguered people. It is in this way that the men of violence can be effectively contained and eventually rendered powerless.

America can again become a beacon of hope, and douse the flames of terrorism at the same time.

Amb. Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic studies at American University and the former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom. This commentary is based on his recent book, “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a War on Tribal Islam.”

Harrison Akins is the Ibn Khaldun chair research fellow and assisted Ambassador Ahmed on his book.

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