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On Talking to Terrorists

Talking to Terrorists is a fascinating and informed book based on practical experience on how and why governments should talk to dissident armed groups.

It should be essential reading for all parties in any conflict, when negotiations are considered, as a guide to success or simply to avoid being outsmarted by the other side.

From the beginning Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to Tony Blair and chief British negotiator on Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007, objects to so demonising opponents as “terrorists” that it becomes impossible to talk to them. This is peculiarly pertinent advice as his book comes out at a moment when the US is seeking to create a regional coalition to attack the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but finds itself hamstrung by having designated as terrorists the groups, such as Hezbollah and the Kurdish militia, despite the fact that they are battling the Islamic militants.

The book is particularly valuable because peace negotiations are too complex, prolonged and semi-secret to be effectively covered by the media. Governments begin by declaring that they will never talk to “terrorists” and seldom draw on past experience. Governments come and go, but insurgent leaders often stay the same. Powell notes that “Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have seen eight British Prime Ministers come and go while they have been in the leadership of the Republican movement.”

Powell has a strong sense of how state repression feeds insurgencies by providing martyrs and collective punishment gives them a mass base. Indeed terrorism and the ‘propaganda of the deed’ is geared not only to draw attention to a grievance but to tempt governments into a self-defeating over-reaction. At a certain moment, as happened in Syria in 2011, governments and their armed opponents may have a common interest in militarising a crisis in order to weaken moderates as a political force. Instead politics become dominated by what politicians in Northern Ireland once called “the politics of the last atrocity.”

The book is instructive in identifying why some negotiations fail, succeed or land somewhere in-between. A repeated mistake is to wait too long between a ceasefire and negotiations because insurgents may conclude that they have been tricked into giving up their main card, armed struggle, without getting anything in return. Israel is constrained by its political culture of refusing to speak to its opponents that its unilateral withdrawals from South Lebanon and Gaza produced few political benefits.

At a simple level it is always a mistake to exclude serious players from negotiations because they will then have a stake in preventing a successful outcome. Powell writes that the problem for the West in Afghanistan “is that we have left engaging with the Taliban terribly late. In retrospect it was a mistake to have excluded them from the original talks on the future of the country in 2002.”

The same was true of the attempted marginalisation of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a mistake for which Iraq is still paying a price. Negotiations are the recognition of a certain balance of power between hostile parties and an attempt to reflect this in an agreement. Governments who don’t want to talk to “terrorists” have to seriously reflect on their chances of putting an insurgency permanently out of business, or living permanently with a certain level of violence.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising