Nettles and Drones

There are no simplistic or short term solutions in a war against an especially cruel and violent enemy

Nettles and Drones
Some readers may notice the similarity of the title of this piece to that of the book The Thistle and the Drone by Dr Akbar S Ahmed. A former civil servant, High Commissioner to the UK, and a recipient of Sitara-e-Imtiaz, Dr Ahmed is a highly regarded scholar. He is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington DC and was the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Hailing from FATA (Mohmand Agency, I am told), he is also an author, poet and a playwright.

In The Thistle and the Drone, Dr Ahmed draws on 40 current case studies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, to reveal the adverse effect on indigenous populations of the war against terror. He argues that the use of drones as a leading weapon has morphed into a campaign against tribal peoples, whom he characterizes as tough and thorny ‘Thistles’. This, he argues, has actually exacerbated the already broken relationship between central governments and the tribal societies on their own peripheries, such as, for example, in the case of the Waziristans. Thus, he concludes that, although Al Qaeda has been decimated, the US is drifting into a global war against tribal societies on the peripheries of nations.

Now, far be it for this scribe to question the wisdom of someone with the awesome intellectual credentials of Dr Ahmed. But, with all due humility, let it be suggested that there is a problem with the basic terminology here. Dr Ahmed is an anthropologist and therefore sees things through an anthropological prism – that is to say, he sees tribes as a unit of analysis, where others might see, for example, ethnicities or even ideologies. Let’s face it, at least as far as FATA in Pakistan is concerned, the very basis of local leadership has changed, with old-style tribal Maliks having been replaced by heavily armed, tech-savvy zealots fighting for overt political control. This is the first prime point to note.

The second key point at issue is also that this we are talking about a qualitatively different kind of warfare.

“The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

The reader of this piece may recognize here Mao Zedong’s succinct – and complete – description of guerilla warfare. This is the same concept of warfare that was used to such stunning success by the brilliant General Vo Nguyen Giap, successively against the Japanese, the French and the American armed forces. Now, while comparisons may be odious, technologies can and do correspond: It is a similar concept of warfare that has been used by the Mujahedeen against the Russians and by the Taliban against the Americans and against us.

This is the low cost option to counter the massive, and expensive, juggernaut of conventional warfare.

In an earlier piece in these pages, I pointed out that, within my adult years, I have seen both the mightiest superpowers in history embark on great military enterprises, only to be bogged down, demoralised and humiliated. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan: These were the quagmires in which the juggernauts of conventional mechanized warfare became bogged down and brought to a standstill.

These kinds of irregular warriors can then be better described as Nettles, rather than Thistles. I refer, of course, to the stinging Nettle that one used to find in the mountains when I was a child, and which was known locally as Bichoo Booti – the Scorpion Plant.

Thus, we see that this kind of Mountain Nettle warfare rose over the years to successfully counter the massive forces of conventional warfare. But this is not where it ends since neither do wars ever really conclude nor does human ingenuity ever really run out of creativity... especially where it comes to devising means of destruction.

Weapons technology came up with the Drone, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. These were used, first, for surveillance – the eye in the sky – and then as highly efficient tactical weapons, striking at targets with high precision and relatively low collateral damage. Now, I am not going to argue the merits or otherwise of warfare conducted with the Predator and the Reaper. Drone warfare has come up under criticism as being in violation of national sovereignties. But so are terrorist enclaves, so this particular line of criticism carries little weight. There are, however, numerous political, moral and technological strictures against Drone warfare, which are beyond the scope of today’s piece, but which cannot be ignored.

The core point is that Drone warfare is only the first step towards unmanned warfare. Beyond the Drone are the LARs – Lethal Autonomous Robots. These self-propelled, impersonal killing devices already exist and could be pressed into service before long. Now, I am not positing a terrifying Machines-versus-Humans scenario, as in Hollywood’s “Terminator” series of films, but it is probably not totally farfetched.

Thus, as conventional warfare is being repeatedly trumped by Irregular warfare (the Nettle), technology is bringing Unmanned warfare (the Drone and what lies beyond) onto the battlefields of the world.

Where is it likely to end? This writer, for one, believes that the Drone direction is a dangerous one in which to travel. It opens up too many unpredictable consequences. However, one is not advocating any simplistic pacifism or impracticable pseudo-Gandhian idealism. Nations do need to defend their people’s freedom and prosperity and their national integrity, in that order, and for this they need to use armed force against those who are clear and present danger to these. The point is that there are no simplistic or short term solutions. The ways ahead are winding and slow and the solutions holistic and multi-faceted.

However, let it be clear that there is no space for vacillation or lily-livered, craven cringing before this especially cruel and violent enemy.

“If you gently stroke a Nettle,

It will sting you for your pains.

Grasp it like a man of mettle

And it soft as silk remains.”