How America’s war on terror became a global war on tribal Islam

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: Last May, a Syrian insurgent told The National’s Phil Sands about a meeting with US intelligence operators in Jordan. The rebel commander was hoping to procure weapons to resist a regime bristling with Russian arms. But he was surprised to learn that the Americans were more interested in the composition and activities of the opposition group Jabhat Al Nusra. Until the regime provoked the US with its use of poison gas, checking its serial atrocities was a secondary concern. The CIA was collecting coordinates of potential targets for its drones.

This hierarchy of concerns might seem at odds with the US rhetorical posture. But Damascus – until recently a preferred destination for CIA rendition flights – has successfully sapped US sympathy for the opposition by deploying the spectre of Al Qaeda. The opposition comprises myriad elements, most of them non-violent; foreign jihadists too have joined its ranks. But the regime and its backers in Tehran and Moscow have consistently exaggerated their strength. Consequently, the US, though not keen to see President Bashar Al Assad triumph, is less keen to see the opposition win and potentially add to the insecurity of Israel.

In the post-9/11 paranoia, many rogues have endeavoured to portray their local adversaries as part of a global terrorist threat. Russia did it with the Chechens; China with Uighurs; Israel with Palestinians – they all claimed to be fighting a “war on terror” against the same Islamist menace that threatened America. Others have followed the template. “Painting their peripheries as associated with Al Qaeda,” writes Akbar Ahmed in his remarkable new book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, “many countries have sought to join the terror network because of the extensive benefits that it brings. They use the rhetoric of the war on terror to both justify their oppressive policies and to ingratiate themselves with the United States and the international system”.

This failure to distinguish regional struggles from global militancy allowed many states to harness US power to settle local disputes. The conflict between a centralising, hierarchical state and a recalcitrant, egalitarian periphery is not unique to Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). In the multi-ethnic Orient, geography rarely corresponds with identity. Many tribal societies have been left excluded on the margins. In turn they have resisted modernisation, seeing it as the centre’s tool for expanding its authority. Some of these conflicts, as in Chechnya, have simmered for centuries. But in most places, modus vivendi were evolved guaranteeing the autonomy of tribes while upholding state sovereignty.

The war on terror has disrupted this balance. [Continue reading…]

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