“The Most Dangerous Place in the World”
By Aja Anderson
American University
Washington, DC

On a blazing July afternoon on the campus of the Chautauqua Institute, Akbar Ahmed beamed out at his audience — more than 1000 gathered in the amphitheater and spilling out onto the surrounding lawn — and announced that he would be keeping his jacket on in solidarity, despite his wife’s advice. “I said, I’m not doing so, so that my beloved audience, sweating out there in the heat will feel that some jerk is worse off than us — if he can tolerate it, so can we!”

The fifth week of the Chautauqua Institute’s (CI) renowned summer lectures focused on the people of Pakistan, a country which is “much maligned, [and] little understood,” according to Ambassador Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University. Introduced by the legendary Rev. Dr. Joan Campbell, Director of CI’s Department of Religion, who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ahmed gave a one-hour lecture entitled “The Tribal Areas of Pakistan: The Most Dangerous Place in the World.” The frame for the talk was based in a research project Ahmed is currently concluding, which will be published by Brookings Institution Press in early 2013, called The Thistle & the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam.

The hardy thistle, an allegory for the tribal communities in the study, is pitted against the sleek and impersonal drone — together they serve as “an apt metaphor for the kind of society we are living in today — the Age of Globalization,” Ahmed said. The thesis of the book is the fractured relationship between the tribes who exist on the periphery and the center — the state — which at best ignores its periphery and at worst systematically destroys it. In the context of post-9/11 world politics, troublesome peripheral communities are conveniently lumped together with terrorist groups, with whom they often have no connection, and central governments are then free to marginalize, deracinate, and exterminate entire ethnic groups under the blessing of America’s War on Terror.

The title of the lecture itself was taken from a speech given by President Barack Obama in 2009, when, Ahmed said, America seemed to have a “clear cut definition of [the] problem” abroad. Yet in the last three years, the favorite tool of American strategy in the Tribal Areas — the drone — has plunged the region into a state of chaos from which it seems unable to recover. More than a decade after 9/11, there has been no solution for America, Pakistan, or the people of the Tribal Areas.

Ahmed explained that America and Pakistan are lost in a fog of war -- they do not trust each other and undermine each other at every turn. America is embroiled in a seemingly unending conflict against shadowy adversaries whom it does not understand, and Pakistan is falling apart, as the center attacks its own periphery. The reverberations of each country’s missteps upset -- and cost --the lives of the tribal people who exist on the fringes of society. As America and Pakistan both target terrorist activity with drone strikes along the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the very backyards of these tribal communities, the native population is geographically guilty by association. While the Obama Administration has claimed either that there are no civilian casualties, or that they are negligibly low, counterterrorism expert Col. David Kilcullen has said that drone strikes have only a 2% success rate -- meaning the majority of casualty statistics are collateral damage. With more than 30,000 Pakistanis dead since America began its War on Terror, tribal people lament that “every day is 9/11 for us.” The people of Pakistan’s periphery have been traumatized, and they do not understand why.

While the concept of tribalism may have seemed foreign, antiquated, and irrelevant to some in the audience, Ahmed clearly linked the importance of events in the Tribal Areas to global instability. “What happens there does not stay there,” he said. Understanding the history of Pakistan, the creation of the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, the culture of the people who live there, and the current clash between central government and peripheral community was critical to decoding the situation on the ground. Calling both America and Pakistan out for an ignorance of history, Ahmed took the crowd back one thousand years, to illustrate the proud heritage of the tribes of Afghanistan and Waziristan. Alexander the Great paid tribute to the tribes for the right to cross the Khyber Pass — when foreigners failed to play by their rules, the tribes responded with overwhelming force. Even the British, the greatest colonial empire of the 19th century, respected the imperative of working within tribal structures to achieve their goals — after their mighty Indus Army was reduced to one man by the fierce warriors of the frontier tribes.

Deconstructing the tribal universe, which is built on lineage, honor, egalitarianism, and hospitality, opens a window into the psyche of the tribesman. Without knowledge of the nuances of tribal politics, neither diplomat nor soldier can hope to work effectively with the people of the Tribal Areas. Highlighting the delicate nature of geopolitics in the region given the influence of China, India, and Iran, Ahmed explained how the social and political fabric of Pakistan is shredding as the three-fold structure which bolstered society has crumbled: tribal leadership has faltered as elders have been assassinated; religious authority is absent as imams are targeted by terrorists; and the center wages war against the periphery while ignoring its basic needs. Out of the vacuum of this harassed and underdeveloped periphery have emerged groups like the TTP, who have no compunction in blowing up hospitals, mosques, and schools. Thus tribal people suffer the drone which seeks the terrorist, the suicide bomber who retaliates against the drone, and the Pakistani military bullied into action by foreign powers -- all of these affronting the honor of the tribesman, who can see no recourse but to take up arms against his antagonist. American, Pakistan, and the tribesman could be formidable allied against the terrorist -- if each understood the other’s paradigm.

Counterbalancing the earlier morning lecture by Fareed Zakaria, whose message played on populist themes, Ahmed reminded the assembly that Pakistan and America have a history of respect and cooperation. While Zakaria declared that Pakistan was inherently anti-West, Ahmed pointed to the time of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, when the two countries were allied against the Soviet Union. When Jackie Kennedy travelled to Pakistan in 1962, she was received in an open air car to throngs of excited people, throwing flowers at her feet. She even traveled to the Tribal Areas, where the tribesmen “went crazy for her.” Zakaria spoke with derision of the Pakistan nuclear program’s namesake, Babur, the founder of the great Mughal Dynasty, calling him an idol breaker, and suggested India should be allowed to run things in the region. His provocative remarks left the Pakistanis in the audience very agitated. Ahmed felt, however, that Pakistan must be given the chance to step up to the task of rebuilding itself, harkening back to the ideals of its founding — which were the very democratic ideals which founded America. Both countries are currently embroiled in a “21st century version of the Great Game” — the objective of which is unclear.

Ahmed did not paint a rosy picture of international relations, but he did offer a simple solution: learn from history. Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires,” and the tribes which inspired that epithet are cousins of those in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. The last ten years for them have been “sheer hell — total uncertainty, total chaos, total violence.” If the US packs up and leaves the region, it will only accelerate total collapse, from which the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and TTP will benefit. Thus the US must win this war — but not necessarily on a battlefield, according to Ahmed. That will require developing a cultural competency that includes a thorough knowledge of history and custom, and the willingness to target diplomacy within the framework of the tribal universe. Ultimately, the most effective tool America and Pakistan could use is compassion—which both Ahmed and his “guru”, Karen Armstrong, also in attendance, champion. These countries must, as Atticus Finch would say, “climb into [each other’s] skin and walk around in it.” Otherwise we all face a chaotic, neurotic, and potentially apocalyptic, future.

Ahmed’s lecture can be viewed in its entirety here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvINpIaCmzI

(Aja Anderson is the Program Coordinator and Chief of Staff for the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies in the School of International Relations at American University in Washington, DC)

 

 

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