The American Bear


The Thistle and the Drone

In the post-9/11 paranoia, many rogues have endeavoured to portray their local adversaries as part of a global terrorist threat. Russia did it with the Chechens; China with Uighurs; Israel with Palestinians – they all claimed to be fighting a “war on terror” against the same Islamist menace that threatened America. Others have followed the template. “Painting their peripheries as associated with Al Qaeda,” writes Akbar Ahmed in his remarkable new book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, “many countries have sought to join the terror network because of the extensive benefits that it brings. They use the rhetoric of the war on terror to both justify their oppressive policies and to ingratiate themselves with the United States and the international system”.

This failure to distinguish regional struggles from global militancy allowed many states to harness US power to settle local disputes. The conflict between a centralising, hierarchical state and a recalcitrant, egalitarian periphery is not unique to Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In the multi-ethnic Orient, geography rarely corresponds with identity. Many tribal societies have been left excluded on the margins. In turn they have resisted modernisation, seeing it as the centre’s tool for expanding its authority. Some of these conflicts, as in Chechnya, have simmered for centuries. But in most places, modus vivendi were evolved guaranteeing the autonomy of tribes while upholding state sovereignty.

The war on terror has disrupted this balance. FATA, Yemen and Somalia represent the most obvious ruptures. But in his exhaustive study, Ahmed considers 40 cases, ranging from Africa and the Middle East to Eurasia, where the war on terror, or its local franchise, has upset the equilibrium to unpredictable, often atrocious effect. In turn, unable to match the power of central governments that are backed by the lethal technologies of a superpower, the tribes have resorted to asymmetrical warfare. The drone has been answered by the suicide bomber.

Ahmed draws the metaphor of the thistle from Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad to represent the resilience and prickliness of tribal society. The drone, on the other hand, is both the symbol and the instrument of the war on terror. The resentments sown by the drones have sprouted a new harvest with all of the thistle’s nettles but none of its beauty.


But the use of drones increases American insecurity in unpredictable ways. Freelance retribution of the kind attempted by Faisal Shahzad at Times Square and the Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon are harbingers of the blowback to come. None of them had any connection to the Fata, but the relentless killing in Waziristan and beyond outraged them all. The more “collateral damage” accumulates, the vaster will be the reservoir of resentment, the greater the willingness to retaliate.

The US is in effect creating the demons it is out to slay. President Barack Obama’s drone war is baiting new enemies and swelling the ranks of the old. Akbar notes: “92 per cent 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”. To them, the causes of the US war remain opaque. They have no desire – or capacity – to hurt America; but they, like their forefathers, are committed to repelling overbearing intruders.

Subsequent to the unilateral invasion, Kenyan troops were folded into Amisom and given a seal of international approval. Yet this retrospective legitimisation could not disguise that their intervention [in Somalia] was in fact an invasion, and that the risk of blowback was always going to be high, especially when it became clear that Kenya’s involvement was seriously hurting al-Shabaab.

Nairobi terror attack: why Kenya and why now?


Attack on Pakistani church kills over 60 people | Yahoo News

A pair of suicide bombers detonated their explosives outside a historic church in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing over 60 people in the deadliest-ever attack on the country’s Christian minority, officials said.

A wing of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing in the city of Peshawar, saying it would continue to target non-Muslims until the United States stopped drone attacks in the country’s remote tribal region.

The latest drone strike came Sunday, when missiles hit a pair of compounds in the North Waziristan tribal area, killing six suspected militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

The attack on the church, which also wounded 120 people, underlines the threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban at a time when the government is seeking a peace deal with the militants. It will likely intensify criticism from those who believe that negotiating peace with the Taliban is a mistake.

The attack occurred as hundreds of worshippers were coming out of the church in the city’s Kohati Gate district after services to get a free meal of rice offered on the front lawn, said a top government administrator, Sahibzada Anees.

"There were blasts and there was hell for all of us," said Nazir John, who was at the church with at least 400 other worshippers. "When I got my senses back, I found nothing but smoke, dust, blood and screaming people. I saw severed body parts and blood all around."

I have no way of knowing what will first strike you as wrong. I just know that something will. It might be very specific and close at hand — something amiss you see in the program you’re working on, some outrageous expenditure of money or set of lies about what an agency or outfit is doing, or some act or set of acts that you, in growing up, had been taught were un-American. The possibilities are legion. After all, the national security system that they’ve built and engorged with taxpayer dollars, using fear and the excuse of American ‘safety,’ has dispatched armies, and special ops outfits, and drones all over the world to commit mayhem and increase global instability, to kill civilians, wipe out wedding parties, kidnap and torture the innocent, assassinate by robot, and so on. … Or maybe it all just sneaks up on you, the wrongness of it. Maybe, even if you’re too young to remember the totalitarian states of the previous century, something about the urge of our national security managers to create total systems of control, trump the law, and do as they please in the name of their need for knowledge will simply get under your skin. You’ll know that this isn’t the way it was supposed to be. Tom Engelhardt, Letter to an Unknown Whistleblower

Who's Terrorizing Who? In Yemen, America Is The Terrorist

Nonstop fear mongering by lawmakers and White House officials about the allegedly growing threat of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has pushed Yemen into the national spotlight as a country synonymous with terrorism. Yemen is home to the scary bearded terrorists that want to kill our innocent American children, or so the mainstream narrative goes. But contrary to popularly indoctrinated opinion, if anyone is a terrorist in this scenario, it is us, the United States. [++]

A drone strike that killed Pakistan tourism | The Express Tribune Blog

When Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) number two in command, Waliur Rehman Mehsud,was killed in a US drone strike in May, many anti-US conspiracy theorists cried foul, citing the attack as an act aimed at ensuring the TTP would refuse the new government’s dialogue overtures. The killing of Waliur Rehman would necessitate acts of vengeance by the TTP that would destabilise the country and throw the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) led government off course from day one, they said.

Whether this narrative is true or not, the consequences of that drone attack played out on June 23, in a shocking, brutal attack in which, militants dressed as paramilitary forces, killed nine foreign tourists and one Pakistani, in Gilgit-Baltistan. TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan was quick to claim the slaughter, saying the group’s faction Junud-e-Hafsa carried out the attack as revenge against US drone attacks and Waliur Rehman’s death.

The Terror Diaspora: The U.S. Military and the Unraveling of Africa | Nick Turse

[…] 10 years after Washington began pouring taxpayer dollars into counterterrorism and stability efforts across Africa and its forces first began operating from Camp Lemonnier, the continent has experienced profound changes, just not those the U.S. sought. The University of Birmingham’s Berny Sèbe ticks off post-revolutionary Libya, the collapse of Mali, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, the coup in the Central African Republic, and violence in Africa’s Great Lakes region as evidence of increasing volatility. “The continent is certainly more unstable today than it was in the early 2000s, when the U.S. started to intervene more directly,” he told me.

As the war in Afghanistan — a conflict born of blowback — winds down, there will be greater incentive and opportunity to project U.S. military power in Africa. However, even a cursory reading of recent history suggests that this impulse is unlikely to achieve U.S. goals. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, there is ample evidence to suggest the United States has facilitated a terror diaspora, imperiling nations and endangering peoples across Africa. In the wake of 9/11, Pentagon officials were hard-pressed to show evidence of a major African terror threat. Today, the continent is thick with militant groups that are increasingly crossing borders, sowing insecurity, and throwing the limits of U.S. power into broad relief. After 10 years of U.S. operations to promote stability by military means, the results have been the opposite. Africa has become blowback central. [must read]

Even if it turns out that this information orgy has assisted in foiling a limited number of plots, it is not a practicable approach to threat prevention. What is? Changing the policies and behaviors that have caused much of the terrorist threats in the first place. Do that, and you won’t need to stockpile everyone’s communications from now to the end of time. The NSA and the Rest of Us

There is admittedly a genuine security challenge that was posed on 9/11: the United States is vulnerable to well-planned terrorist attacks on the many soft targets of a complex modern society. And although other countries are also subject to major attacks, as was Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the London attacks in 2007, no country is as likely to arouse extremist anger and resentment due to its global projection of hard power as is the United States, and no country is as fearful, despite its military dominance as measured by realist calculations, as is the United States. Such a mismatch suggests that the American global role requires adjustment to the logic of self-determination in the post-colonial world, that the protection of the last remnants of the colonial edifice is a losing effort, and a dangerous one. Richard Falk

Anti-Polio Campaign Worker Shot Dead in Pakistan |

A volunteer in a polio vaccination campaign was killed and her colleague wounded in an attack by militants near Peshawar on Tuesday, a district administration official said.

The volunteers were going door to door to give oral anti-polio drops to children in Sheik Muhammadi, on the southern fringes of Peshawar, when two gunmen opened fire on them and fled, according to the deputy city commissioner of Peshawar, Javed Marwat. A police official said that a search operation had begun but that no arrests had been made.

Mr. Marwat said the women had not asked to be accompanied by security.

“Probably, they thought it was good not to go with a police escort and become a target,” he said.

The government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the surrounding province, announced after previous attacks that it would send police escorts with polio vaccination teams. Most such violence has been attributed to the Pakistani Taliban, who have criticized vaccination efforts as a cover for Western espionage.* Also, religious extremists claim that the real aim of vaccination campaigns is to sterilize Pakistan’s Muslim population.

* Unmentioned in the Times piece is that the suspicions of the Taliban and backlash against polio workers were heightened after a highly unethical fake vaccination program was implemented to track down bin Laden in Abbottabad (in other words, blowback). From Jim White:

Health workers are on the cusp of making polio the second disease after smallpox to be completely eradicated from the planet. The latest plan forecasts eradication by 2018, but a huge barrier is that conservative Islamic groups view Western vaccination programs as attempts to sterilize Muslims. In addition, the participation by Dr. Shakeel Afridi in a bogus vaccination program set up by the CIA to obtain DNA samples from Osama bin Laden’s compound added fresh fuel to the belief that vaccination programs also are used to spy on Muslims.

London Man Killed in Suspected Terror Attack


“We swear by Almighty Allah, we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone. The only reasons we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We apologize that woman had to see this today, but in our lands our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don’t care about you.”

The danger would be for us not to heed the testimony of this man and to continue to allow our governments to piss on our legs and tell us it’s raining.

They don’t hate us because of our “freedoms”; they hate us because of our foreign policies, imperialism, and theft of their land and resources.

This should be a familiar chorus by now.

Quick, somebody tell CIA Director John Brennan about the handwriting on the inside wall of the boat in which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was hiding before Boston-area police riddled it and him with bullets. Tell Brennan that Tsarnaev’s note is in plain English and that it needs neither translation nor interpretation in solving the mystery: ‘why do they hate us?’ And, if Brennan will listen, remind him of when his high school teachers, the Irish Christian Brothers, taught him the meaning of ‘handwriting on the wall’ in the Book of Daniel and why it became an idiom for predetermined, imminent doom. Ray McGovern, Boston Suspect’s Writing on the Wall

Sad Victory for Pakistan’s Taliban: Child Diagnosed With Polio in Region Where Vaccinations Were Denied | Jim White

While much attention is appropriately focused on the horrific and brutal attacks by Pakistan’s Taliban on secular political parties as the country approaches elections in its first-ever transition from one civilian government to another, we have news today of a sad triumph by the Taliban as a child in North Waziristan has been diagnosed with polio after the Taliban successfully shut down polio immunizations there last summer.

Health workers are on the cusp of making polio the second disease after smallpox to be completely eradicated from the planet. The latest plan forecasts eradication by 2018, but a huge barrier is that conservative Islamic groups view Western vaccination programs as attempts to sterilize Muslims. In addition, the participation by Dr. Shakeel Afridi in a bogus vaccination program set up by the CIA to obtain DNA samples from Osama bin Laden’s compound added fresh fuel to the belief that vaccination programs also are used to spy on Muslims. Just under a month ago, a policeman protecting workers administering polio vaccine was shot and killed:

The latest attack took place in the afternoon in the Par Hoti neighborhood of the Mardan district in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. The policemen, Raj Wali and Mohammad Ishfaq, were accompanying two female workers on the second day of a three-day anti-polio drive, said Wajid Ali, a local police official.

The policemen were standing guard in the street as the health workers administered drops inside a house when an unidentified gunman, who appeared to be in his early 20s, walked up to them and opened fire. Mr. Wali was killed and Mr. Ishfaq was wounded, Mr. Ali said in a telephone interview. The gunman escaped.

That killing followed the deaths of eight vaccine workers last December and the violence has led to a significant interruption in the distribution of the vaccine:

In December, at least eight people engaged in polio vaccinations were shot dead in Karachi and the north-west, and in January and February two police officers were killed in similar attacks.

The UN said last month that some 240,000 children have missed vaccinations since July in parts of Pakistan’s tribal region, the main sanctuary for Islamic militants, because of security concerns.

And it is from the tribal area of Waziristan where we have today’s sad news of a child being diagnosed with polio:

A child has contracted polio for the first time in Pakistan’s militant-infested tribal belt since the Taliban banned vaccinations a year ago, a UN official said Monday.

“The new case has been detected in North Waziristan where we had been denied access in June last year,” the World Health Organization’s (WHO) senior coordinator for polio eradication in Pakistan, Elias Durry, told AFP.

Durry fears that this case is not likely to be isolated:

“We are worried because this new case comes as an example of a bigger impending outbreak of disease in the region,” the WHO official said.

In addition to making vaccination drives shorter and lower profile while working closely with security, the executive summary (pdf) for the new polio eradication plan has a key step of outreach to religious groups:

4. Religious leaders’ advocacy: markedly step up advocacy by international, national and local Islamic leaders to build ownership and solidarity for polio eradication across the Islamic world, including for the protection ofchildren against polio, the sanctity of health workers and the neutrality of health services.

Unfortunately, I don’t see an open call in the plan for bringing about an end to intelligence agencies undertaking new vaccination ruses, although “the neutrality of health services” would seem to touch on it. Meanwhile, Afridi has started a hunger strike in a desperate attempt to keep his name in the headlines.

Boston Marathon, this thing called terrorism, and the United States | William Blum

What is it that makes young men, reasonably well educated, in good health and nice looking, with long lives ahead of them, use powerful explosives to murder complete strangers because of political beliefs?

I’m speaking about American military personnel of course, on the ground, in the air, or directing drones from an office in Nevada.

Do not the survivors of US attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere, and their loved ones, ask such a question?

The survivors and loved ones in Boston have their answer – America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That’s what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston bomber has said in custody, and there’s no reason to doubt that he means it, nor the dozens of others in the past two decades who have carried out terrorist attacks against American targets and expressed anger toward US foreign policy. Both Tsarnaev brothers had expressed such opinions before the attack as well.The Marathon bombing took place just days after a deadly US attack in Afghanistan killed 17 civilians, including 12 children, as but one example of countless similar horrors from recent years. “Oh”, an American says, “but those are accidents. What terrorists do is on purpose. It’s cold-blooded murder.”

But if the American military sends out a bombing mission on Monday which kills multiple innocent civilians, and then the military announces: “Sorry, that was an accident.” And then on Tuesday the American military sends out a bombing mission which kills multiple innocent civilians, and then the military announces: “Sorry, that was an accident.” And then on Wednesday the American military sends out a bombing mission which kills multiple innocent civilians, and the military then announces: “Sorry, that was an accident.” … Thursday … Friday … How long before the American military loses the right to say it was an accident? [++]

The American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world. In some respects the United States has been fortunate not to experience worse blowbacks, and these may yet happen, especially if there is no disposition to rethink US relations to others in the world, starting with the Middle East. … Aside from the tensions of the moment, self-scrutiny and mid-course reflections on America’s global role is long overdue. Such a process is crucial both for the sake of the country’s own future security and also in consideration of the wellbeing of others. Such adjustments will eventually come about either as a result of a voluntary process of self-reflection or through the force of unpleasant events. How and when this process of reassessment occurs remains a mystery. Until it does, America’s military prowess and the abiding confidence of its leaders in hard power diplomacy makes the United States a menace to the world and to itself. Such an observation is as true if the more avowedly belligerent Mitt Romney rather than the seemingly dovish Barack Obama was in the White House. Such bipartisan support for maintaining the globe-girdling geopolitics runs deep in the body politic, and is accompanied by the refusal to admit the evidence of national decline. The signature irony is that the more American decline is met by a politics of denial, the more rapid and steep will be the decline, and the more abrupt and risky will be the necessary shrinking of the global leadership role so long played by the United States. We should be asking ourselves at this moment, ‘how many canaries will have to die before we awaken from our geopolitical fantasy of global domination?’ Richard Falk, A Commentary on the Marathon Murders