WHEN people in Washington talk about shrinking the drone program, as President Obama promised to do last week, they are mostly concerned with placating Pakistan, where members of the newly elected government have vowed to end violations of the country’s sovereignty. But the drone war is alive and well in the remote corners of Pakistan where the strikes have caused the greatest and 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. And the damage isn’t limited to Pakistan. 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 global war on terror has intensified that conflict.
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 Qaeda 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.
It was 1979. Safar Khan, a Pashtun outlaw, had over the years terrorized the region with raids and kidnappings. He was always one step ahead of the law, disappearing into the undemarcated international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the very area where Osama bin Laden would later find shelter.
I was then the political agent of South Waziristan, a government administrator in charge of the area. When Mr. Khan kidnapped a Pakistani soldier, the commanding general threatened to launch military operations. I told him to hold off his troops, and took direct responsibility for Mr. Khan’s capture.
I mobilized tribal elders and religious leaders to persuade Mr. Khan to surrender, promising him a fair trial by jirga, a council of elders, according to tribal custom. Working through the Pashtun code of honor, Mr. Khan eventually surrendered unconditionally and the writ of the state was restored. The general who had argued for using force was delighted.
We were able to get Mr. Khan 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 Qaeda in Waziristan, the pillars of authority began to crumble.
In the vacuum that followed, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or 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.”
For the first time tribesmen resorted to suicide strikes — in mosques, bazaars and offices in which women and children were often the victims — something categorically rejected by both Islam and the Pashtun tribal code.
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 for those killed by drones.
Their suspicions of Pakistan complicity proved correct. Former President Pervez Musharraf admitted to CNN last month that his government had secretly given permission to the United States to operate drones inside Pakistan.
Drone strikes have made Waziristan’s already turbulent conflict with the central government worse. Almost 3,500 people have been killed by drones in Waziristan, including many innocent civilians.
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.
Mr. 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 policy makers would do well to heed a Pashto proverb: “The Pashtun who took revenge after a hundred years said, I took it quickly.”
About the author: Akbar Ahmed, the Islamic Studies chair at American University and the former Pakistani high commissioner to Britain, is the author of “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.”