Talking with terrorists

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 12.50.15 AM“The United States does not negotiate with terrorists” is a phrase engraved in every American’s mind because of its common use in the media and government statements. Replete with the idea that Americans will not lower themselves to the terrorists’ level, the phrase has created an implicit international standard that negotiation with terrorists is unacceptable. On Wednesday, June 24, Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair, challenged this notion at a talk with Ian Wallace, Senior Fellow of the International Security Program at the New America Foundation. The talk was based on Powell’s new book, Terrorists at the Table.

According to Powell, every government claims it will not negotiate with terrorists, but ultimately does so. He finds this “collective amnesia” frustrating when government actions clearly show there’s value in talking to terrorists. Powell asserted that people’s opposition to negotiation stems from three beliefs—talking to terrorists appeases, legitimizes and rewards terrorists for their behavior.

These beliefs, however, are completely unfounded. Powell argues that talking to terrorists is not equivalent to agreeing to their terms and only legitimizes them in the short-term, which is a worthwhile sacrifice if the result is long-term peace. Moreover, the idea that talking to people is a reward and not talking to them is punishment is a childish approach. Powell emphasized the importance of an “adult” approach towards such a grave issue.

Powell’s call for communication stems from a desire to reduce the common mistrust between the governments and terrorists. A conversation allows terrorists to share their stories and grievances and opens a process that can lead to a resolution. Otherwise, the vacuum fills up with more violence.

These insights are partly a result of Powell’s experience negotiating with the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement. The 1998 Agreement followed three failed negotiations, which Powell used as an example to highlight the importance of persistence. Initial setbacks shouldn’t deter governments from pursuing channels with terrorists, because failed agreements serve as building blocks for a successful future agreement.

Conditions for fruitful negotiations are a “mutually hurting stalemate” and strong leadership within opposing parties. The former refers to the point at which both parties have exhausted the will and resources to continue fighting, which gives them to communicate with each other in nonviolent ways. Reaching this point can take a while, even with increased military engagement between the two parties. But Powell urged governments to initiate communication channels, because history shows that leaving communication too late renders it useless. Powell cited General Petraeus who admitted that in Iraq, the US government delayed too long before talking to those “with American blood on their hands.”

Powell also mentioned the value of third parties in negotiations. Often governments are reluctant to involve a mediator, because they don’t want to lose control of the discussion. The UN can be the third party in situations demanding conflict resolution, but Powell thinks it has little success. Instead, he pointed to the effectiveness of smaller governments and NGOs, which can be more discrete.

Powell believes there is potential to negotiate with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Critics of this belief make the distinction between old terrorists and new terrorists, claiming that the latter’s religious drive precludes them from being rational counterparts in a negotiation. But Powell is convinced there’s room for communication, especially because the alternatives are bleak. The Kurdish and Shia’ forces have gained ground in Iraq and Syria, but they can’t make a transformative difference without foreign boots on the ground, which is not an option. This means there is no effective strategy unless a negotiating channel is opened.

PS: Powell was preaching to the about to be converted, as President Obama announced yesterday a policy allowing (but not requiring) talking with terrorists about hostage issues. But it will be hard to confine the talks to only those.

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