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How U.S. Drones Miss Their Target

Just as the drone is an appropriate metaphor for the current age of globalization, the thistle captures the essence of tribal societies.

March 14, 2013

Drone launched from the USS Lassen in September 2010.Credit: Roberto Ruvalcaba/US Navy-Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

By 2012, the United States, in a move typical for its propensity to opt for excess in any matter of security, had commissioned just under 20,000 drones. About half of these are in use.

Ignoring the moral debate, drone operators are equally infatuated with the weapon and the sense of power it gives them. It leaves them “electrified” and “adrenalized.” Flying a drone is said to be “almost like playing the computer game Civilization,” a “sci-fi” experience.

A U.S. drone operator in New Mexico revealed the extent to which individuals across the world can be observed in their most private moments. “We watch people for months,” he said. “We see them playing with their dogs or doing their laundry. We know their patterns, like we know our neighbors’ patterns. We even go to their funerals.”

Another drone operator spoke of watching people having sex at night through infrared cameras. The last statement, in particular, has to be read keeping in mind the importance Muslim tribal peoples give to notions of modesty and privacy.

The victims of all drone attacks are, in effect, treated like insects. That description is not my invention, but a reflection of the military slang for a successful strike. The victim that is blown apart on the screen in a display of blood and gore is called “bug splat.”

Muslim tribesmen were reduced to bugs or, as David Ignatius put it in a Washington Post op-ed, cobras to be killed at will. Any compromise with the Taliban in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, officially designated as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is “like playing with a cobra,” he wrote. And do we “compromise” with cobras? Ignatius rhetorically asked. “No, you kill a cobra.”

Bugs, snakes, cockroaches, rats — such denigration of minorities has been heard before, and as recent history teaches, it never ends well for the abused people.

Still, the fact of the matter is that several tribal societies — the Pukhtun, Yemenis and Somalis — have become embroiled, in their own different ways, in America’s war on terror. They are the main targets of American drone attacks, and there are reports of similar strikes against the Kurds.

These various populations have been traumatized not only by American missiles, but also by national army attacks, suicide bombers and tribal warfare. This has forced millions to flee their homes to seek shelter elsewhere and live in destitute conditions as hapless refugees. “Every day,” say Muslim tribesmen, “is like 9/11 for us.”

These societies live in areas administered by central governments whose ability to bomb, kidnap, humiliate and rape tribal members at will has been enhanced by U.S. financial and military backing in the war on terror.

For the tribes, this has been the worst of fates, leaving them emasculated and helpless. Every moral boundary they know has been crossed, every social structure attacked.

Amidst all these calamities, we would do well to remember that, with their ancient practices, these tribal communities represent the very foundations of human history. In the most profound sense, they allow all societies a glimpse of their origins.

The disruption of these fragile societies is a high-stakes gamble for civilization. Unless urgent and radical steps are taken to prevent this process and ensure a modicum of stability, the future for these communities looks grim.

It would be wholly illusory for Americans to consider this a triumph of their interdiction strategy or to take it lightly. There is no doubt that the tribal societies’ codes of honor and revenge will lead to escalating global violence.

In the end, this may well bring about the destruction of one of the oldest forms of human society.

Cowboys and aliens

Just as the drone is an appropriate metaphor for the current age of globalization, the thistle captures the essence of tribal societies.

One of the hardiest, most self-reliant of flowers, the thistle has a beauty all its own, despite its lack of sparklingly bright colors, soft petals or fragrance. Some find its cactus-like air of defiance, clearly a warning to passersby, rather appealing.

The tribal Scots were impressed enough to make it their national symbol. In it they saw something of their own character as a proud, hardy and martial people ready to protect their independence with grit and determination. Indeed, the Scottish clans are frequently compared with other thistle-like tribes such as the Pukhtun, Somali, Kurd and Bedouin.

Love of freedom, egalitarianism, a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans, a martial tradition and a highly developed code of honor and revenge — these are the thistle-like characteristics of all of these tribal societies.

Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.

For all that these thistle-like tribes knew, the Americans who arrived in their midst could have been from Mars. Their reaction is not unlike that captured by the 2011 Hollywood film Cowboys and Aliens, set in the Old West of the 19th century.

In the opening scene, some Americans are attacked without provocation by aliens who use an unknown technology to capture humans and fly them away for torture and interrogation.

To the tribesmen, the Americans who came from nowhere in flying machines no one had seen before and abruptly disappeared with their catch were seen as aliens, with their abnormally large frames covered in strange padding, protruding wires, protective helmets and peculiar weapons.

These invaders could see at night through their glasses, speak into those wires and command deadly airstrikes while resting on the ground. They appeared to have few social skills and neither offered nor received hospitality.

As the aliens in the movie, Americans were loud, rude and violent and expressed no interest in the land or its people. The tribes thought the reasons the Americans gave for invading their regions were incomprehensible.

For example, 92% of the people surveyed in the Pukhtun-dominated areas of Kandahar and Helmand a decade after the war began in Afghanistan had never heard of 9/11 and therefore had no idea of its significance for Americans.

The Americans, even the few who stopped to remember their own Native American tribes, considered the Muslim tribes they encountered after 9/11 a remnant of the past and did not quite know what to make of them.

In their dusty settlements — outside Kandahar, for instance — the Americans saw them as primitive characters living in God-forsaken regions, some families still inhabiting caves or mud huts.

Their unsmiling men wore turbans and had long beards. The women were covered from head to toe and restricted to domestic chores. Donkeys and camels were the main means of transport and their code of behavior demanded savage forms of revenge.

Stories circulating of the brutal slaughter of enemies or “honor killings” of women weighed heavy on many American minds. Most worrying of all, every one of these tribesmen was regarded as a potential al Qaeda sympathizer and therefore a terror suspect. In other words, the Muslim tribesman was at best a relic from another time and at worst an enemy to be eliminated.

These perceptions of each other are not mere cinematic or literary conjecture. They are confirmed by an authoritative American survey of Afghan and American soldiers in uniform that indicates a large chasm exists between the two.

The United States has failed to understand not only the nature of tribal society, but also the dimensions of this simmering conflict between the center and the periphery. As a result, Americans have never been clear as to where al Qaeda ends and where the tribe begins and why they resort to violence.

For the United States and its allied central governments, the tribes across the Muslim world effectively became public enemy number one. Why? Because they were outside the realm of globalization, if not actively resistant to it, and they were seen as the natural allies of al Qaeda.

Opposition to either the war on terror or to globalization was thus seen as one and the same thing, risking the wrath of the United States and casting those opposed as potential “terrorist sympathizers.”

The problem was that many such tribes and communities wished to benefit from globalization, but not to compromise their thistle-like identity.

They also had to contend with central governments more interested in monopolizing globalization’s many benefits — developments in information technology, transport and communications, medicine, trade and commerce — and in the central government’s policy of promoting the politics, language and culture of the dominant group at the center. Little more than crumbs — a cell phone here, a job in a security firm there — fell to the periphery.

It is in the interest of the United States to understand, in all the tribal societies with which it is engaged, the people, their leadership, history, culture, their relationship with the center, their social structures and the role Islam plays in their lives.

Without this understanding, the war on terror will not end in any kind of recognizable victory as current military actions and policies are only exacerbating the conflict.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings) by Akbar Ahmed. Published by arrangement with the author and the Brookings Institution Press. Copyright © 2013 by Akbar Ahmed.


The United States has failed to understand the nature of tribal society.

Opposition to either the war on terror or to globalization was thus seen as one and the same thing, risking the wrath of the United States.

Without this understanding, the war on terror will not end in any kind of recognizable victory.

Current military actions and policies as pursued by the United States are only exacerbating the conflict.

As a result, Americans have never been clear as to where al Qaeda ends — and where the tribe begins and why they resort to violence.