Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace

Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace

by Jonathan Powell

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Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace by Jonathan Powell

Should governments talk to terrorists? Do they have any choice?

Without doing so, argues author Jonathan Powell in Terrorists at the Table, we will never end armed conflict. As violent insurgencies continue to erupt across the globe, we need people who will brave the depths of the Sri Lankan jungle and scale the heights of the Colombian mountains, painstakingly tracking down the heavily armed and dangerous leaders of these terrorist groups in order to open negotiations with them.

Powell draws on his own experiences negotiating peace in Northern Ireland and talks to all the major players from the last thirty years—terrorists, Presidents, secret agents and intermediaries—exposing the subterranean world of secret exchanges between governments and armed groups to give us the inside account of negotiations on the front line. These past negotiations shed light on how today's negotiators can tackle the Taliban, Hammas and al-Qaeda. And history tells us that it may be necessary to fight and talk at the same time.

Ultimately, Powell brings us a message of hope: there is no armed conflict anywhere in the world that cannot be resolved if we are prepared to learn from the lessons of the past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466878914
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/30/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 455 KB

About the Author

JONATHAN POWELL worked for the British Foreign Office for fifteen years until, in 1994, Tony Blair poached him to join his ‘kitchen cabinet' as his Chief of Staff. Since leaving the Prime Minister's office, he has worked with a Geneva-based NGO, negotiating between governments and terrorist groups in Europe, Asia and Africa, and has now established his own NGO, InterMediate, to continue this work. He lives in London with his wife and two daughters.
JONATHAN POWELL worked for the British Foreign Office for fifteen years until, in 1994, Tony Blair poached him to join his ‘kitchen cabinet’ as his Chief of Staff. Since leaving the Prime Minister's office, he has worked with a Geneva-based NGO, negotiating between governments and terrorist groups in Europe, Asia and Africa, and has now established his own NGO, InterMediate, to continue this work. He lives in London with his wife and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt

Terrorists at the Table

Why Negotiating Is the Only Way to Peace

By Jonathan Powell

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Jonathan Powell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7891-4



Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.

— John F. Kennedy

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush said, "No nation can negotiate with terrorists, for there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death." His vice president, Dick Cheney, put it more pithily, saying, "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it." These few words capture the essence of the question. Is it moral to talk to terrorists? Is it effective to do so? And, in the end, is there any alternative?

Of course it is not just Bush and Cheney who have taken this uncompromising line. In 1901 Teddy Roosevelt called for a crusade to exterminate terrorism everywhere after President McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. In 1985 President Reagan insisted, "America will never make concessions to terrorists. To do so would only invite more terrorism. ... Once we head down that path there would be no end to it, no end to the suffering of innocent people, no end to the bloody ransom all civilized nations must pay." More recently President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, said, "We don't negotiate with terrorists, that's the policy of the United States." It is not just American presidents but French, Colombian, Sri Lankan, British, Spanish, Israeli, Turkish, and pretty much all other world leaders who have repeated, time after time, that they will never negotiate with terrorists.

At an emotional level, the refusal to have any dealings with people who are prepared to engage in barbarous acts is understandable. It seems obvious that the only answer is to respond with force and to suppress the perpetrators of terrorism. No politician hoping for reelection would ever contemplate proposing anything else. Michael Burleigh, the author of a racy history of terrorism, says, "The milieu of terrorists is invariably morally squalid, when it is not merely criminal. ... If you imagine that Osama Bin Laden is going to evolve into Nelson Mandela, you need a psychiatrist rather than a historian." This emotional response extends elsewhere. The play Talking to Terrorists by Robin Soans, which suggests that countering terrorism through force alone will only lead to more violence in the future, was opening in London when the 7/7 Tube bombings occurred. The Telegraph theater reviewer, Dominic Cavendish, wrote the day after, "When the threat of a terrorist strike seems only a remote possibility, it's easy to admire ... these two hours of theatre," but "the implacable, hate-filled face of terrorism has announced its arrival on these shores again — and I don't think it's asking for a conversation."

Former soldier James Wither sums up the moral arguments against engagement: "Talking to terrorists represents a betrayal of fundamental values and principles as it appears to legitimise illegal violence and promote discourse with individuals who have rejected the rules and norms of international society." American lawyer and controversialist Alan Dershowitz takes an even more uncompromising approach:

Never negotiate.

By listening to terrorists you are fulfilling their aims, and encouraging them. ... The reason terrorism works ... is precisely because its perpetrators believe that by murdering innocent civilians they will succeed in attracting the attention of the world to their perceived grievances. ... We must commit ourselves never to try to understand or eliminate its alleged root causes, but rather to place it beyond the pale of dialogue and negotiation. Our message must be this: even if you have legitimate grievances, if you resort to terrorism as a means toward eliminating them we will simply not listen to you, we will not try to understand you, and we will never change any of our policies toward you. Instead, we will hunt you down and destroy your capacity to engage in terror.

Such views are often based on a gut reaction to the horrors of terrorism. The American academic Audrey Cronin says the debate on talking to terrorists "produces plenty of heat but scarce light, having more to do with the emotional aftermath of an attack" than the practical questions of what to do to prevent further attacks. But it is too easy to dismiss such responses as purely emotional. The arguments against talking to terrorists deserve to be considered one by one.

The first argument put forward is that talking to terrorists is to give in to blackmail and simply encourages others to take up arms to achieve their aims. Democratic governments cannot allow terrorism to be seen to work. The leading academic in the field of conflict resolution, William Zartman, summarizes this argument: "Negotiation actually encourages terrorism. President Richard Nixon's statement on hostage negotiations that 'saving one life endangers hundreds' can be expanded by orders of magnitude in regard to negotiations with political terrorist organisations. It is irresponsible to let terrorists shoot their way through civilian casualties into policy decisions; rewarding their blackmail only encourages others to do the same." Politicians go as far as to suggest that talking to terrorists is tantamount to appeasement. Speaking to the Israeli Knesset in 2008, George W. Bush said: "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals [yet] [w]e have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939 ... [We] have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement."

This represents a complete misunderstanding of appeasement. The issue in 1938 was not that Neville Chamberlain went to Munich to talk to Hitler — talking was a sensible attempt to avoid another apocalyptic world war — but in thinking that Hitler could be bought off with a large chunk of Czechoslovakia. The problem is not talking to terrorists, it is giving in to them. They are not the same thing. Talking would indeed be to reward blackmail if it consisted of conceding to all of the terrorists' demands, but no democratic government would survive if it were to do so. The British government talked to Irish Republicans but never gave in to their demand for a united Ireland at the barrel of a gun. Zartman concludes: "It is not the act of negotiating that encourages or discourages further terrorist blackmail; it is the terms of the negotiated agreement. If the terrorists win their goals in the negotiation process and give the state little or nothing beyond the end of conflict in exchange, others will indeed be encouraged to follow the same course." Nick Burns, a former senior American diplomat, adds: "Talking to our adversaries is no one's idea of fun, and it is not a sure prescription for success in every crisis. But it is crude, simplistic and wrong to charge that negotiations reflect weakness or appeasement. More often than not, they are evidence of a strong and self-confident country."

The next argument is that terrorists are psychopaths and talking to them is pointless as well as wrong. There are indeed psychopaths in the ranks of terrorist groups, but as Louise Richardson says, "Terrorists, by and large, are not insane at all. Their primary shared characteristic is their normalcy, in so far as we understand them. Psychological studies of terrorism are virtually unanimous on this point." Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist, found little evidence of personal pathologies in the backgrounds of the 172 mujahedin he studied, and Martha Crenshaw of Stanford University states bluntly that "the idea of terrorism as the product of mental disorder or psychopathy has been discredited." Richardson sums it up: "Terrorists are neither crazy nor amoral but rather are rationally seeking to achieve a set of objectives." Terrorist groups have their own rationality, just one that we don't always understand immediately. It takes time and effort to talk to them to try to understand what has driven them to take up arms and what they really want to achieve. It is impossible to untangle their rationale without talking to them.

Third, there is the argument that talking to terrorists is immoral and that by engaging with them, we reward their behavior. As they are both unrepresentative and illegitimate, they should not succeed by breaking the rules of society. Zartman and his French colleague Guy Faure put forward the argument that "on the moral level, the terrorists' choice of means — violence against civilians — makes engagement and negotiation unethical. The very act of dealing with terrorists, particularly given the status and equality that engagement and negotiation imply, tarnishes the state, since the state is supposed to represent the highest values of legality and legitimacy." Yet we are ready to talk to governments that use violence, even horrific violence, against their own people, so it is perverse to suggest we should refuse to talk to non-state armed groups that do the same. Furthermore, we would never in our daily lives, at least not among grown-ups, use talking to someone as a reward and refusing to talk to them as a punishment. As the Saudi foreign minister Saud Bin Faisal pointedly asked when making the case for engaging with Hamas, "If we don't talk to them, how do we convince them they should change their attitudes towards peace?" In the play Talking to Terrorists the ex–secretary of state character based on Mo Mowlam says, "Talking to terrorists is the only way to beat them. ... If you want to change their minds, you have to talk to them." From a more theoretical point of view, Robert Mnookin, the head of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard, argues in his book Bargaining with the Devil that our ingrained biases often lead us to reject negotiation prematurely, and we should therefore establish a rebuttable presumption in favor of negotiating even with those who are evil.

The absolute moral arguments against talking to terrorists don't really stand up, and they certainly fall away in the face of the practical, if distasteful, need to talk to terrorists if we are to stop them from killing. Even the toughest of American generals in the "war on terror" accepts that we cannot kill all the terrorists and that for each one we kill we probably create two more, so in the end we will have to talk to them. It is a question of when and how, not whether. General Petraeus recalls that central to the strategy in Iraq was that "we would not be able to kill or capture our way out of the industrial-strength insurgency that was tearing apart the very fabric of Iraqi society." A "key element" of the strategy was an "explicit decision to aggressively support reconciliation with Sunni insurgents who were willing to become part of the solution in Iraq rather than remain a continuing part of the problem — and, later, to do the same with Shia militia fighters."

An unlikely ally for the moral case for talking to terrorists is Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Israeli internal security agency Shin Bet, who says, "Anything you can do to shorten war is ethical." The former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban went further. He believed that negotiation is not an arbitrary option but an unconditional duty: "The issue is how to quench the fires, not to hold interminable debate about who kindled them. ... Negotiating with terrorists is not a question of forgiving or forgetting the past, but holding a pragmatic position about the future. It is an ethical perspective that is based on humanistic precepts that place the saving of lives and the cessation of bloodshed as the highest priority."

This is not to say that it is morally comfortable talking to people who have committed unspeakable acts of murder. Governments walk a thin moral line when they engage with terrorist groups. When we in the British government engaged with Irish Republicans, we were very conscious of this narrow ground. On the one hand we did not want to tip the IRA into another Canary Wharf bomb by mistake, as John Major had done; but neither did we want to find ourselves negotiating under the threat of violence and allowing ourselves to be influenced by that threat, which would have been both immoral and extremely bad practice. Governments need to be conscious of the moral peril they run in talking to terrorists, while recognizing that doing so is often the only way to spare lives. Antonia Potter, a humanitarian expert, says that mediators "must be willing to live with what might kindly be described as moral ambiguity. They must be prepared to talk to and even befriend those whose hands may be stained with blood." Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president and a successful mediator, said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, "I have made my career by talking to people that have at some point been branded as terrorists. For me, this is the only way to have a successful peace mediation process. Reaching a solution that ends a conflict means talking to all those who are parties to the conflict."

Although many academics and diplomats concede that despite the moral hazards, it can sometimes be acceptable to talk to terrorists, an increasing genre of academic and political writing argues that doing so can be counterproductive or wrong in practical rather than moral terms. One of its proponents, Mitchell Reiss, a former Northern Ireland envoy for President George W. Bush, discovered to his cost how controversial even such a moderated approach can be. His book Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists was dragged into the presidential campaign in 2012. Reiss was a foreign-policy adviser to Mitt Romney and had argued in his book that although it was often a mistake to talk to terrorists, in the case of the Taliban it might be worth considering. During the TV debates between the Republican candidates, one of Romney's rivals raised the issue and demanded to know if he agreed. Romney immediately distanced himself from both the argument and his adviser, and said no negotiations should take place with the Taliban while they were fighting American soldiers. Alan Dershowitz, who belongs to this school, believes that talking to terrorists is nearly always a bad idea and should only be considered when the terrorists are on the verge of giving up, at which point the government might as well finish them off militarily rather than talking to them. He claims the West has built up terrorism, especially Palestinian terrorism, by pandering to it instead of defeating it. This is a variant of the "one last heave" argument that was common during British decolonization and is heard sometimes about Northern Ireland, in retrospect at least, running as follows: The terrorist group is deeply penetrated and on its last legs as a result of security force successes; if the politicians would just stand back and let the military, police, and intelligence finish the job without their hands being tied behind their backs by political considerations like respect for human rights, the terrorist group would be defeated without any need to negotiate with them. The politicians who try to talk to the terrorists are, in the idiom of the COMINTERN, "useful idiots" who, although well meaning, play into the hands of terrorists and rescue them from defeat.

The former conservative Spanish prime minister José María Aznar takes this line: "My personal approach is that any policy is appeasement if it means negotiating"; the government should enter negotiations "only if a terrorist group is in failure." In 1996 he said that "the policy of a frontal battle against terrorism that we are leading gives good results, and that there is no other way. My responsibility is to hit at ETA as hard as possible, and that is what I'll do. ... There is no negotiation possible between the government and ETA." Aznar's security adviser, Javier Zarzalejos, argued in 2004 that "we were very close to putting an end to ETA." In his view the socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, which succeeded Aznar's, saved ETA from defeat by agreeing to talk to them. ETA was on the back foot, under pressure from the French and Spanish police and intelligence, successive leaderships had been arrested (three groups in one year), and they would have been wrapped up entirely if the police had been left to do their job. "Zapatero restored ETA when they were down," says Teo Uriarte, a Basque politician.

There is, however, precious little empirical evidence to support this one last heave argument. In Northern Ireland it is true the IRA was heavily penetrated by British intelligence in the 1980s and 1990s, and this made it harder for the group to launch successful attacks. It is also true that they were tired and were being driven to resort to increasingly desperate tactics. But, as the leaders of the British army and police conceded, the IRA was not going to be defeated by military means alone. The same is true of ETA. The one last heave approach is a delusion.


Excerpted from Terrorists at the Table by Jonathan Powell. Copyright © 2015 Jonathan Powell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter One
Why We Must Talk to Terrorists

Chapter Two
Making Contact with the Enemy

Chapter Three
Building a Channel

Chapter Four
How Governments Engage with Terrorists

Chapter Five
The Third Party

Chapter Six
Starting a Negotiation

Chapter Seven
The Art of Negotiation

Chapter Eight
Why do Some Negotiations Succeed and Others Fail?

Chapter Nine
Only Implementation Creates Trust

Chapter Ten
The Lessons of History

Chapter Eleven
The Future




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