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Leading Scholar Speaks of Pakistan’s Complexity and History’s Lessons

Akbar Ahmed.
Akbar Ahmed.
Former Pakistani diplomat Akbar Ahmed is a leading scholar and author on Muslim societies and currently the Ibn-e Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington.

In a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique, Ahmed weighed in on Washington's drone war in the greater Middle East and the current imbroglio in Pakistan. Recalling the lessons of history, he said that "America cannot simply pack up and walk away" from Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Your book, "The Thistle and the Drone," argues that suspected U.S. drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and allied extremist leaders have turned Washington's struggle against extremism into a global war on tribal Islam. Can you explain how?

Akbar Ahmed: Yes, it is being perceived as such, especially by people living in the tribal societies. If you do a correlation of where the drones are being used then you will note that they are primarily in tribal societies. For example, among the Pakhtuns [Pashtuns] living on the both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Yemeni tribes, and the Somali tribes.

So you can see that there is a correlation and therefore the perception has formed, incorrectly, because there is also so much positive work being done by the United States and NATO in terms of building roads and bridges and schools. But the perception is very strong. Therefore, this perception feeds into the anti-Americanism, which is fairly high in societies like Pakistan, or even Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Many people from Pakistan's northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) say that the drone strikes are actually popular, particularly in North and South Waziristan, where attacks have targeted Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders. But they are opposed in mainland Pakistan where some political parties have taken it up as a popular cause. How would you respond to such views?

Ahmed: The response to the drone strikes in Pakistan has been changing. It has now, as you say, become more common in the settled areas [outside FATA] to criticize the drones. It is being picked up by the political parties, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's [Pakistan Muslim League] Party and Imran Khan's [Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf] Party and so on. In the tribal areas, yes there is some ambiguity. Those who are wanting to finish the scourge of the militants -- the violence -- they would feel that perhaps this is one quick surgical answer.

But so many other people who are suffering as a consequence of these strikes [would like them to end]. Remember, there is something that is called “collateral damage.” Just the fear of the drones, the fear that is now being transmitted to the next generation and that is very well-documented in studies from New York [University], from Stanford [University], from the United Nations of how children are being traumatized, women are being traumatized, and so many families have left the tribal areas.

Akbar Ahmed's latest book "The Thistle and the Drone".
Akbar Ahmed's latest book "The Thistle and the Drone".
You mentioned Waziristan, both the North and the South. A large section of the population no longer lives there because people don't want their families to suffer the consequences of these strikes, even if they are not directly a target of these drones. So it is more complex than simply saying that people are for it or against it.

RFE/RL: Do you see any connection between Al-Qaeda's ideology and the social structures or notions of honor in Pakistan's tribal areas?

Ahmed: Equating Al-Qaeda to all tribal responses is a fundamental mistake. This is just not correct. There may be Al-Qaeda elements, there may be a few hundred or a few thousand Al-Qaeda members in the tribal areas of Pakistan, but never more.

Secondly, I have been in charge of Waziristan in the South, I have been in charge of the Orakzai [tribal district] and my Ph.D. is based on the Mohmand tribe, and I cannot imagine Pashtun tribes, particularly those living in the tribal areas, which I call based on a notion of "nang"(eds: Pashto for honor), in terms of their honor and in terms of their organization.

I cannot imagine them being influenced by outsiders coming from different countries who don't know the local language, the customs and the terrain. How [would they] conduct battle and promote strategy? Therefore, for us to mix the two up is a mistake in analysis.

RFE/RL: You recently toured Pakistan. Where do you see that country heading?

Ahmed: I am very concerned, because I keep saying this, that when they [Pakistanis] discuss the tribal areas, there is a danger and there is a reductionism taking place. They assume that all tribal areas are somehow militant, or Al-Qaeda, or TTP [Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan], and therefore violent, and therefore they deserve to be wiped out and killed and so on. Now the danger is that they are equating a few people, maybe a few thousand, to the entire range of society.

Now in this situation today where we are faced with either peace talks with the tribal areas or you use force, it reduces those areas to an equation, which doesn't work. Because for ten years both have been tried -- peace talks and force. Something more sophisticated and more effective has to be found. Otherwise, you will have this continuation of these cycles of violence, and no one wants this.

RFE/RL: What kind of road map or policy prescription did you offer Pakistanis to end their country's current imbroglio?

Ahmed: I have pointed out that while Pakistanis are thinking, along with their American colleagues, of step one or step two, which is either peace or force, they should not be thinking of step one only, and need to be thinking of step three, four, five and six.

Even if the army succeeds, for the time being, in subduing the TTP, they need to be very quickly saying there is a vacuum here. How do we fill the vacuum? Where are the tribal leaders and their [cultural institutions such as] the jirga? Where are the religious leaders and the representatives of central government, which are civil and not military? Unless these steps are taken, simple talks or simple force will not work.

RFE/RL: You served in many parts of Pakistan's restive southwestern province of Balochistan. Do you see that region heading towards separatism in reaction to Pakistani military operations?

Ahmed: Balochistan has been so neglected and the people of Balochistan have been treated so shabbily. Pakistanis have not understood how important the notion of honor is for the Baluch. And because the people of Balochistan [have] been treated sometimes as second class citizens, you have now a simmering movement for independence. This did not exist to this extent when I was there [in the 1980s]. You had some discontented elements but they were containable. There were a lot of Baluch who wanted their rights within Pakistan.

But if Pakistan does not very quickly bring the Baluch into the main body of Pakistan politics with the feeling that we are also Pakistanis and we have a share, we have a right in this country, you will find that more and more Baluch are going to question the very notion of being with the nation of Pakistan.

Pakistanis must remember that Balochistan can thrive and do very well as an independent country. It has the coast. It has sparse population. It has the mineral resources. Whereas Pakistan will find it very difficult to survive without Balochistan, which forms something like 45 percent of the landmass of the country.

RFE/RL: Pakistan and Afghanistan are at a crossroads in the wake of the planned international U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of this year. How do you see their future?

Ahmed: I am optimistic, because essentially the people of Pakistan and the people of Afghanistan are very fine, hardworking people. They have a lot of patience, they have a lot of courage, they have hospitality, and they have compassion. In spite of all the violence and the turmoil that they have faced, they still retain their own character.

I am hoping that the two nations, Pakistan and Afghanistan, in some senses, they are like siblings. They are very very close, ethnically, culturally, historically. They [need to] begin to work together and understand that if one is strong the other is strong, and stop blaming each other for everything that happens. Again like siblings living in a house, they need to behave with more maturity and more wisdom so that the region sees some peace, some harmony and therefore, progress.

RFE/RL: What advice will you offer U.S. President Barack Obama, who recently ordered the Pentagon to plan for withdrawal if Afghan President Hamid Karzai or his successor fails to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with Washington?

Ahmed: Every American needs to understand that history in that part of the world teaches us many lessons. One big lesson is that America cannot simply pack up and walk away, because it has done that in the past. It has done it twice and has had to come back. If it happens again, the coming back will be far more costly than engaging with Afghanistan and Pakistan now and making sure that relations are so improved that Americans are welcomed and allowed to stay on, as friends and allies.