The Case for Talking With Terrorists

The Case for Talking With Terrorists

Governments’ refusals to entertain the possibility of dialogue with groups such as al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State causes needless deaths, says expert Jonathan Powell.

July 2, 2015 3:16 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Governments’ refusals to entertain the possibility of dialogue with groups such as al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State is ahistorical and causes needless deaths, argues Jonathan Powell, who served as the British government’s chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process. In Terrorists at the Table, Powell writes that governments can only resolve conflicts with nonstate armed groups that have significant bases through negotiations, but they are often resistant at the outset and so are late to come around to them. But once talks get underway, "it is remarkable how quickly the shift can be from a conflict being ’insoluble’ to its solution being described as ’inevitable,’" writes Powell, who now runs Inter Mediate, an NGO that facilitates negotiations.

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lead negotiator Ivan Marquez (C) talks to Colombia’s lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle (R) as FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo listens during a meeting in Havana August 21, 2014. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lead negotiator Ivan Marquez talks to Colombia’s lead government negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, during negotiations in Havana seeking to end a nearly fifty-year-old conflict. (Photo: Enrique De La Osa/Reuters)
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You begin Terrorists at the Table by advocating dialogue with the Islamic State, arguing "We are unlikely to destroy them by bombing alone." But most of the cases you examine involve groups with well-defined national or subnational aspirations, so compromises like power-sharing or devolution of power are plausible, whereas the Islamic State strikes many as uniquely apocalyptic. Why should policymakers not consider the Islamic State beyond the pale?

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

We’ve had four waves of terrorism: anarchist, nationalist, new left, and now, religious. Every time we meet a new terrorist group, we argue they are utterly different and we can learn nothing from the last time. Of course they are different, but some lessons on how we deal with them seem to apply in all cases. If the IRA [Irish Republican Army] and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] were not beyond the pale, why should ISIL [the Islamic State] be beyond the pale?

The arguments put forward for it are, first, that they are religious. In the words of a former Israeli cabinet minister, "God doesn’t compromise." But we’ve made peace with the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] in the Philippines and the GAM [Free Aceh Movement] in Indonesia, both of which were explicitly Islamist movements. The second argument is that they are irrational or nihilistic, doing violence for violence’s sake. That is untrue in the case of ISIL. It uses violence to frighten its enemies so they run away, so that they can attack with fewer fighters. They use it specifically on the West because they know executing one aid worker or one journalist in a horrific way will have a huge impact. The third argument is that they don’t respect national borders, but actually they do: They set up a caliphate that has specific borders. It may not be our borders, but they are borders.

President Obama announced reforms of U.S. hostage policy last week: The United States will keep its "no concessions" policy in place but streamline coordination among federal agencies and with the families of U.S. captives. What do you make of the announcement?

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The president’s announcement makes no change in terms of ransom. Private families are allowed to pay ransoms, and no one has been prosecuted for doing so, but the state won’t pay. The change is that he’s authorized federal officials to negotiate with terrorist groups. Previous presidents, including [Ronald] Reagan and George H. W. Bush, have negotiated with terrorists, so it’s not completely new.

The thing that’s weird in my mind is to draw a distinction, negotiating about hostages but not talking to them about anything else, when we could save hundreds, thousands of lives if we talked about politics more generally. Where does the moral distinction come between talking to ISIL about a hostage and talking about ending the conflict altogether?

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

One objection is that the United States has invested much—in terms of lives and money—in Iraq, and negotiating with the Islamic State could be construed as recognition of their proto-state and the dismemberment of Iraq. 

"In democracies it’s incredibly hard to explain to the public why we are talking to people that are killing our people."

It’s a fallacy that it is such a big deal to offer recognition to these groups by talking to them. Armed groups are desperate for recognition. They seek legitimization more than anything else, the ability to tell their story. But legitimization is a temporary phenomenon. In Colombia, the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] went into talks with President [Andres] Pastrana in 1999. They were legitimized. They sat at the table with him on camera, but they behaved ridiculously and made it clear they weren’t serious about a peace process. Their legitimization went out the window. When they walked away from the talks, they were dismissed as narcoterrorists.

What sort of issues could you foresee on the table?

The distinction I draw in the book is between talking and negotiating. People say, "Well if you talk to ISIL, you’re going to agree to a caliphate." Of course you’re not. I don’t think they’re in any mood to negotiate at the moment, but if and when we do come to negotiations there is one serious issue: the alienation of the Sunni population of Iraq and Syria by sectarian governments in Damascus and Baghdad. Unless we bridge that gap, the problem is going to fester.

What you want to do is open up a channel, usually a secret channel. These people live in a ghetto; they only talk to each other. You need to broaden their horizons about how the world sees them, and we need to understand better what they do. With the IRA, we opened a channel in 1972 but didn’t begin negotiations until 1994. These channels take a long time to develop.

It may be that ISIL will disappear as a result of bombings, but it seems unlikely. Without a channel, it will take much longer to open a negotiation, and many more people will die unnecessarily. 

In Afghanistan, President Ashfraf Ghani has urged Pakistan, which had been a spoiler in the past, to push the Taliban to the negotiating table, and China, which holds sway with Pakistan, appears eager to facilitate talks. But the Taliban is waging an intense insurgency; this fighting season has reportedly been the most violent since 2001. How do you evaluate the prospect of a negotiated settlement there?

The United States missed an opportunity. One mistake was thinking that the surge would put the Taliban on the back foot and make negotiation possible. The surge may have made progress militarily in Afghanistan, but the Taliban could stand back and say, "Well, you guys are going, so we can hunker down for this bit and then we’ll be back." The United States should have opened a channel to the Taliban much earlier, because it takes a long time to get these people to open their minds and understand what’s possible and what’s not.

We’re now in a different phase. This is about Afghan negotiations. President Ghani has made it clear that he wants such negotiations. He’s tried to work through Pakistan, but the Taliban are apparently reluctant to engage.

"When a group makes the transition from force to politics, you’ve really cracked the problem."

At some stage the parties will reach a perceived mutually hurting stalemate. A lot of the Taliban are tired and ready to talk. None of them want to be the ones offering talks, because hardliners may take it out on them. But at some stage they will want to talk because they understand that they can’t take over the country militarily. They may want another try, but they’re not going to succeed. Then you won’t be talking about a theocratic government; you will be talking about specific issues like power sharing, changing the constitution, and education.

The Taliban were excluded from the Bonn Conference negotiations that shaped Afghanistan’s post-2001 political order. Their exclusion is often cited as a catalyst for the subsequent insurgency. What makes governments resist engaging with armed groups like that? 

I was in government at the time and I wasn’t arguing for the Taliban to be at the table, and yet in retrospect, that was clearly the right thing to have done. At the time I didn’t have a broad-enough vision to see that. It would be nice if policymakers were challenged more, opened their minds to these things, and learned from the lessons of the past.

It was General [David] Petraeus who said that in Iraq, we left it until much too late to talk to people "with American blood on their hands," but we seem to do that again and again. There seems to be a sort of collective amnesia. In democracies it’s incredibly hard to explain to the public why we are talking to people that are killing our people. That’s why nearly all talks start in secret and are often denied by the government. 

Israel and Hamas are reportedly in talks over a long-term truce in exchange for Israel loosening restrictions on the Gaza Strip. That would ease conditions for Gazans, but also undermine the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which Israel had recognized as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. As a mediator, how do you weigh those competing interests?

It’s better to try and do a peace deal with a united group, to make peace once rather than many times. In this way, dealing with Hamas strikes me as a sensible move: The interest of Israel isn’t in the stability of the PLO; it’s in having a lasting peace.

The security establishment, interestingly, seems to take the long-term view. In nearly all of these conflicts it’s the army or the security sector that first see the need to negotiate, and the politicians come later. The Israeli people are skeptical about the chances of a long-term peace, but if they saw it, they’d grab it. Any Israeli government that wants to be reelected should be interested in a lasting peace.

I want to pivot to Colombia, whose government and the FARC are negotiating a settlement to their long-running conflict. But while talks are proceeding in Havana, there has been an upswing in attacks on Colombian infrastructure. What are the politics of negotiating with your enemy amid ongoing violence?

President [Juan Manuel] Santos took time before he started the negotiations to learn from previous attempts at negotiating with the FARC. One of the mistakes he [saw in] the previous process was this sort of semi-cease-fire the FARC were given. They were allowed to take over an area the size of Switzerland as a demilitarized zone, and they used that for training and carrying on their activities, so when they ended the peace talks, the government was in a worse position than before and the FARC were stronger. Santos was determined not to offer a cease-fire because he feared there would be no pressure on the FARC to negotiate.

The president has said that he’s not going to allow the violence to knock him off course for the talks. That’s the right decision. Historically you get spikes of violence late in the process—spoilers on both sides. And they’ve never made this kind of progress before. They’ve agreed to three of the five chapters. The two most difficult remain: transitional justice and [the] disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration [of combatants].

In democracies, governments come and go, transparency is valued, and officials must be responsive to their publics, who are often aggrieved by the traumas they have endured. Are democracies particularly ill-suited to carry out these sorts of negotiations?

Terrorism seems to be the ugly twin of democracy. We need to learn to live with it because we are vulnerable to it. I’m talking about non-state armed groups who enjoy real political support. Groups like this don’t take up terror because they’re innately evil. They do it because they feel—often wrongly—that the political way forward for them is blocked.

Democracies can resolve these things in a way dictatorships can’t. As long as you’re prepared to use absolute force, you can just suppress it, at least temporarily. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin could take extreme measures in Chechnya. Democracies can’t do that. [The British government] couldn’t flatten West Belfast. The heart of these are political grievances, and in the end you have to solve the problem politically. When a group makes the transition from force to politics, you’ve really cracked the problem. They start getting political power. Once it’s made that transition, it’s hard to go back to violence, because then they’d lose the political strand altogether.


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