Over the past century, a number of anthropologists and related social scientists have written about the formation of state societies and their relation to peripheral peoples who find themselves bounded by states, usually without their consent. Very often, such ‘peripheral’ peoples come to our attention in relation to wars, usually not of their own making. What I want to do in this review of Akbar Ahmed’s amazing book The thistle and the drone, is to indicate that Ahmed, while in no way perfect, has opened new dimensions for understanding the relations between state and peripheral groups that allows for ‘connecting the dots’ – something that is not possible if, as in earlier studies, one is writing an ethnography of a particular group. Anthropologists have focused either on the peripheral peoples, or on the state, rarely on the dynamics of colonialism.Thus, missing from our attention has been simultaneous coverage of state and periphery, and especially now, empire and the horrific uses made of killer drone technology. Nor have we assessed global swathes of such activities from inside Europe to Asia and the Americas. The separation of interests, possibly due to specialization plus the narrow range of anthropologists’ experience, has limited our analysis. New dimensions from Akbar Ahmed’s book – the third in a trilogy – not only combines ethnographic analysis with history and comparison, but utilizes his wide-ranging experience, including his work as a Pakistani government agent and later as ambassador to Waziristan. Ahmed is also a poet, playwright and coordinator of a team at the American University in Washington, DC where he occupies the Ibn Khaldun Chair for Islamic Studies. Ahmed is an inexhaustible speaker in universities and in the media, and a film producer. In other words, he has a combination of talents that are used far beyond what anthropologists and other social scientists usually include when approaching the topic of state and periphery – until now. The organization of the book reflects the structure of this timely and important contribution. In Chapter 1, Ahmed explains his framework for the thistle and the drone – or the tribal hill peoples and the US empire. Chapter 2 on Waziristan, subtitled ‘the most dangerous place in the world’, outlines his ideal model: tribal elders, the religious leader, and the political agent representing the central government – a model that basically holds in all his 40 case studies and in which the drone is considered dishonourable, an apocalypse within the American narrative of the ‘clash of civilizations’. Chapter 3 is ‘Bin Laden’s dilemma’ in which tribal identity, not Islamic identity, defined actions in which 9/11 was organized like an Asiri raiding party. Chapter 4, ‘Musharraf’s dilemma’, examines centre/ Muslim periphery problems which began with European colonization and continued through post-colonial nation building: the periphery became attached to or annexed by modern states that gave them few rights. Chapter 5, ‘Obama’s dilemma’, in which centre/periphery dynamics shift from state/tribe to America/tribal Islam justified by national security issues. Finally a conclusion – ‘How to win the war on terror’ – by a diplomat, an ambassador, even an applied anthropologist, arguing that US intervention exacerbates existing tensions. Thus the solution: there should be a federal government of autonomous tribal areas, a promotion of tribal cultures, and access to opportunities.The organization of the book reveals an anthropologist studying up, down, and sideways in ways that were not the centrepiece of previous works by authors prior to Ahmed. Thus the new dimensions: history, ethnography, comparison and multi-sited. Appendix A of Ahmed’s book, ‘Of tears and nightmares’, deals with the anthropologists’ dilemma and might have been better placed as a final chapter. The dilemma here is empathy, wanting to fix the pain, be relevant even. Contrast Ahmed with Sir Edmund Leach, who studied the Burmese people in 1939 and wrote of hill tribes in relation to lowland groups and the processes of change from gumlao to gumsa over a 70-year cycle. In his now classic The political systems of Highland Burma – A study of Kachin social structure (1954), one of my favourite ethnographies, Leach covers exactly what his title suggests. In 10 chapters, Leach takes us deep into the ecological background of Kachin society and the unstable categories of Shan and Kachin, the variabilities concluding that the Kachin Hills area is not culturally uniform, since the ecology varies, while rituals are more relatively uniform. They are not a society in equilibrium, nor do they represent characteristics of any ‘tribal’ entities. The separation of interests, possibly due to specialization plus the narrow range of anthropologists’ experience, has limited our analysis. New dimensions from Akbar Ahmed’s book – the third in a trilogy – not only combines ethnographic analysis with history and comparison, but utilizes his wide-ranging experienceIn his critique ‘Tribal ethnography: Past, present, future’ (1989), Leach noted: ‘The word “tribe” and “tribal” are now seldom used … the word tribe … is now seen as derogatory’. He continues to note that European traders, Christian missionaries and colonial administrations were seen as having a destructive impact on tribal society, whereas Indian and Chinese traders, or Buddhist or Islamic missionaries, were not usually accorded this status. While Christian missionaries comprised the earliest British administrators among the Burmese Kachin, Leach discovered there were no tribal boundaries, although much reference to tribes. The colonial government encouraged agents of detribalization as taking the path to ‘progress’. For Leach, there can be no future for tribal ethnography of a purportedly objective kind, since history only begins with literacy.The publication of Akbar Ahmed’s The thistle and the drone reflects paradigm changes in the 21st century. Looking backwards in time, Ahmed uses history to move the argument to a contemporary analysis of the state and the empire – as well as ‘the tribe’ – as living examples of what Leach had dismissed due to their derogatory connotations. Harold Barclay published People without government (1982), which draws on several generations of anthropologists who have documented stateless and governmentless societies throughout the world, and through time. His point is that the absence of government does not necessarily imply disorder or anarchy, thereby decrying the myth of the necessity of the state. He centres instead on how order is maintained in ‘anarchic politics’. Stateless political organizations have been documented for the Hopi of northern Arizona, where governance was achieved through a balance of ritual groups. The Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, Aboriginal Australians, the Comanche and the Basin Shoshone are also examples of political organizations based on the extended family, and the Tiv of Nigeria, based on unilineal descent groups.Early on, Africanists Evans-Pritchard and Fortes stated that it is possible to have a stable, enduring political system, working efficiently without the organization known as ‘the state’. Political orders and the state are not synonymous. In Africa there were states such as the Ashanti or Swazi as well as stateless societies, like the Tiv. But the colonizers and postcolonial states were not included in the works of early Africanists. In writing about this, Paul Bohannan noted (1963: 282) ‘multicentred power systems are … the political nemesis of our age’. Yet he adds, ‘modern political thinkers may discover that there are stabilizers in non-national, multicentred authorities which can solve some of the problems that seem to battle the nationalistic unicentric authority systems of the 20th century’, like those which ‘beset the United Nations today’ (ibid.). In The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (2009), James Scott, a political scientist and anthropologist, asks the question: how do ordinary people deal with a predatory state? He was speaking about hill peoples, not predatory empires. Scott’s analysis focuses on Zomia1 – a mountainous region in South Asia comprised of parts of Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand with a population of 100 million people. The major contribution of Scott’s book is to view the people of Zomia not as primitive leftovers of the prestate period. Those living in the highlands consciously choose to avoid the reach of the state due to the possibility of being subject to predatory behaviour by states through conscription, slavery, taxes, forced labour and war. Geography is a strategic resource used by such people to avoid the predatory actions of the state – a safe haven, or so they might think. For Scott, the state is not synonymous with order, rather states are harbingers of disorder and chaos. However, Scott believes that technological improvements will increase the reach of the state, making avoidance increasingly difficult. Scott’s previous book, Seeing like a state (1999) led him to be sceptical about the ability of governments to effectively improve the human condition through planning and intervention, sometimes referred to as ‘development’.Laura Nader is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. In Contrarian Anthropology: The Unwritten Rules of Academia by Laura Nader (2018). Originally published as: Laura Nader, “The Anthropologist, the State, the Empire and the ‘Tribe’,”in Anthropology Today (Aug. 2015). Copyright © Wiley-Blackwell. Used by permission of Wiley-Blackwell. Published in Daily Times, February 18th 2019.