Review: The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam

Amazon Page

Amazon Page

Akbar Ahmed

5.0 out of 5 stars 6 Star (My Top 10%) — The Book Susan Rice Should Read First, June 6, 2013

I received and read this book today, and while I am troubled by the author’s buying into the Bin Laden story and the official 9/11 cover-up, this is a six-star book that easily provides one stellar concept that must be integrated into the fabric of every foreign policy — understanding the failures of the centers in each state with respect to the more traditional peripheries — and a deep broad articulation of why the US “war on terror” has actually been a thoughtless unnecessarily expensive and harmful war on tribes.

Ignore those who demean this book or this author. I generally consider Brookings to be expert at publishing dumbed down talking points for loosely-educated policy makers, but this book is easily in the top tier, a book Cambridge or Oxford would be comfortable published, and a book that ties in perfectly with Philip Allot’s extraordinary book The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State. Read my review of that book as a pre-quel to reading this book, which I certainly recommend in the strongest possible terms.

I am among those who hold political leaders in the USA — a few exceptions notwithstanding — in very low regard. Those of us with intelligence and integrity have known for a long time that the US policy and acquisition “system” is corrupt to the bone, incoherent, and so uninformed as to suggest everyone in Congress and the White House are on drugs. Just two books to this point: Paul Pillar’s Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform and Robert Kaiser’s Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t — and of course the standard in the field from Mort Halperin, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy; Second Edition where “Rule One” is — I do not make this stuff up — “Lie to the President if you can get away with it.” Susan Rice is entering the heart of the cesspool, where everyone, without exception, is going to be lying to the President and to her, and while I wish her well, I lament the raw fact that there is no organization in this town dedicated to intelligence with integrity on all topics, committed to my own mantra, “the truth at any cost lowers all others costs.”

I was the contractor who provided US Special Operations Command with the tribal maps and attitude surveys prior to their going into both Afghanistan and Iraq. We did not have time time to do the in-depth tribal studies such as the author of this book and many others are capable of developing, but it merits comment that neither CIA nor DIA could do for USSOCOM what OSS.Net and its many international sources pulled off almost overnight, at very low cost. SOCOM — as the author himself points out late in the book — at least cares about tribal culture, custums, and concerns. The same cannot be said for any other element of the US “national security” community, which is actually an archipelago of pork pies where the only people “heard” are those who pay to be heard — 5% being the standard kick-back. Washington think tanks are next to worthless because they do not do holistic systems studies and they have no comprehension of true cost economics and multi-domain feedback loops (try thinking about every problem in terms of water present and water future — it changes everything).

It is in the context of a Washington that is morally and intellectual broken, with a new National Security Advisor starting work in July, that I consider this book to be quite stellar. A few of the points that capture its essence:

01 Classic US idiocy to equate the Muslim religion with terrorism, which is a tactic not a threat. Washington claims it does not, but in fact US military schools still convey the “nuke the M..F…rs” attitudes.

02 The break-down between the center and the periphery is not just a Muslim state-tribal issue, it is characteristic of every state, and I would certainly include the USA, where 27 secessionaist movements are still in existence and the black people rioting with sticks could well be replaced by white people rioting with shotguns. Washington is so out of touch with the 22.4% that are unemployed, including students, veterans (22 suicides a day now, up from 18 — and these are just the successful ones), labor, and soccer moms whose angst can no longer be controlled by medication — they see the theft everywhere (see Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History and Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream?). My own Graphic: Preconditions of Revolution, is still not understood by anyone in power anywhere that I know of.

03 Governance is about BALANCE. The author makes this case using a very tough nut, Waziristan, where the three sources of authority that must be reconciled day by day, case by case, are tribal, religious, and political (the last representing the “center”). I have spent most of my life overseas across Asia and Latin and Central America, find the US national security bureaucracies — including the Department of State — to be toxic. They are simply not capable of nuanced study, understanding, and accommodation. Loch Johnson’s Seven Sins of American Foreign Policy (Great Questions in Politics Series) are alive and well today.

04 Muslim states are not one size fits all. This was for me a most interesting part of the book, and illuminates my point about nuances — since John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I do not believe we have had a Presidential administration capable of nuances, and would observe that in the case of JFK, he had to do all the heavy-liffting, his minders were all on the imperial track or what the author calls the “steamroller” track. He outlines and discusses five distinct models, and I am reminded of various works pointing out that Indonesia, Malaysia, and India (the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia) have all found solid paths, while Pakistan and now Turkey have stumbled.

05 Chapter 6, “How to Win the War on Terror: Stopping a Thousand Genocides Now,” is the chapter Rice should read in preparation for advising the President to close down the CIA drone operation and the JSOG task forces all over Africa and now into Latin America — we also need to stop the GLADIO B operations out of Turkey into the Caucasus, close down the the various Central Asian “adventures,” and give serious thought to professionalizing how the USA does intelligence, policy, acquisition, and operations. Right now we have amateur hour — loosely-educated people without ethics. It is a FACT that the CIA drone operations have a “success rate” of no better than 2%, with the other 98% being innocent women, children, and old men, all collateral damage on the scale of Fallujah. Similarly it is a FACT that JSOG A teams are furious with rotten intelligence out of DIA and CIA that keep expanding the kill lists down to tea vendors and taxi drivers. Criminally insane. What we spend $75 billion a year on today in the name of intelligence is nothing more than rancid pork.

QUOTE (327): It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the United States has been fighting the wrong war, with the wrong tactics, against the wrong enemy, and therefore the results can be nothing but wrong. The author goes on to spell out his recommendations, buy the book, read with an open mind, I can absolutely guarantee that the other 1,800 plus non-fiction books I have reviewed here at Amazon all support the author’s wisdom. Just two that make the point going back to World War II and into the future: The Fifty-Year Wound: How America’s Cold War Victory Has Shaped Our World and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.

This is a book of common sense and truth. If and when it goes to a second edition I hope the publisher will integrate some badly needed graphics showing tribal areas of influence and linguistic separation point. Some maps of conflict zones would be useful. An appendix on the ten high level threats to humanity and the twelve core policy areas that are not managed coherently, as well as the eight demographic challengers that are not only ignoring the USA, but creating a completely new honest financial system and development bank, would be useful.

We’ve made so many mistakes — good people trapped in bad systems, with the best of intentions. We have done so because ideology displaced intelligence, and corruption displaced integrity. This book is as a good a starting point as any I can recommend for re-thinking how we represent America the Beautiful.

My final link, chosen with great care: Will Durant’s 1916 thesis, now available as Philosophy and the Social Problem: The Annotated Edition

Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
INTELLIGENCE for EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainability (2010)