How To Talk To Terrorists
October 10, 2014 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Above all, what these experiences demonstrate is that there isn’t really an alternative to talking to the terrorists if you want the conflict to end. Hugh Orde, the former chief constable in Northern Ireland, rightly says, “There is no example that I know of, of terrorism being policed out” – or fully defeated by physical force – anywhere in the world. Petraeus said that it was clear in Iraq 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”. If you can’t kill them all, then sooner or later you come back to the same point, and it is a question of when, not whether, you talk. If there is a political cause then there has to be a political solution.

Jonathan Powell is a British diplomat who served as the first Downing Street Chief of Staff, under British Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1995 to 2007. His new book is Talking to Terrorists, How to End Armed Conflicts.
posted by philip-random (36 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think of NI whenever there is trouble like the recent flare-up in the Middle East. You can either go round in circles for another 100 years, or you can sort it out by serious talking and action on BOTH sides.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 11:29 AM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


The Symbionese Liberation Army was defeated by police work.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:29 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


But what if you want to high-five the terrorists for keeping your endless war going and your military-industrial complex fully funded? What if the high-five isn't part of the terrorist's culture, and they see it as a physical threat rather than the friendly gesture it really is? What then?
posted by b1tr0t at 11:30 AM on October 10, 2014 [8 favorites]


The Symbionese Liberation Army was defeated by police work.

in the article, he dismisses them and the Baader-Meinhof gang as "... tiny groups of troubled middle-class children"
posted by philip-random at 11:32 AM on October 10, 2014 [20 favorites]


Meanwhile in the United States, the government is constantly engaged in a contest to see who can not talk to terrorists the loudest.
posted by feloniousmonk at 11:38 AM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


It is easy to regard any suggestion that we should ever talk to people capable of such savagery as immoral.

That is indeed what ISIS feels, thanks in large part to the last 10 years' worth of snuff movie humiliation filmed at Abu Ghraib, drone 'bug-splat' jokes, urinating on Taliban fighters, toddlers decapitated almost daily in Gaza, hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees ...
posted by colie at 11:39 AM on October 10, 2014 [12 favorites]


the government is constantly engaged in a contest to see who can not talk to terrorists the loudest.

which is a lot of what the article is refuting; it's a tactic that NEVER works.

I will now shut up for a good long while.
posted by philip-random at 11:40 AM on October 10, 2014


The Tamil Tigers may disagree.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:44 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


This looks like a good read and I am digging in. One thing it mentions in the lede - the issue of shaking hands with unsavory people. I remember one of Richard Holbrooke's books he talked about that as big issue too. He gave his diplomatic team permission to decide themselves whether to shake hands or not with various Serb gov't and army thugs. It's interesting that we place such psychological importance on the act of touching hands, but it's an interesting mental exercise - would I shake the hand of say Stalin [insert baddie of your choice]? Tough call.
posted by boubelium at 11:45 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


You can defeat a terrorist group in the sense of some individual cell. You can arrest a bunch of guys planning on blowing up a plane, and you've 'defeated' that particular terrorist group, but what he's really talking about is defeating an insurgency that uses terrorist tactics, in which case, no you can't really defeat it militarily, short of genocide.

That's why the SLA doesn't really count, because while they were terrorists, they weren't part of a genuine movement.
posted by empath at 11:45 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


I just read a couple of books that dealt with American responses to terrorism, No Higher Honor by Condoleeza Rice*, and Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward.

The thing that I found most shocking in both of them was that there never seemed to be any attempt to figure out why someone would become a terrorist. Why would they want to attack the US?

What is terrorism is just a symptom of a larger problem?

Yes, these are pretty basic questions, but they get skipped over. Repeatedly.

Instead, you present terrorism as a military problem. You give the problem to a bunch of generals and admirals, and you get a military answer, boots on the ground, counterinsurgency, drones, etc.

I kept wondering why no one was talking to sociologists and anthropologists? What could economists say about conditions on the ground?

How can you take a bunch of angry, disaffected young men, and give them other options in life?

Anyway, I'm rambling.

My point is that we may not like it, but terrorists (in any form) are rational people who act in their own self interests. No amount of military response changes that. Ever.

*And I would recommend the Rice books to anyone who is interested in foreign policy, anyone who disagrees with her and the Bush administrations, anyone who has even a passing interest in world history in the last 20 years. She's brilliant and fascinating.
posted by dfm500 at 11:47 AM on October 10, 2014 [21 favorites]


Although, you can't usually win a regular war 'militarily' in the strictest sense. At some point, you enter negotiations even if only to negotiate the terms of surrender.
posted by empath at 11:49 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


Instead, you present terrorism as a military problem.

Terrorism is just a tactic. There's no such thing as fighting 'terrorism'. You fight people who happen to use terrorism as a military tactic. Fighting terrorism makes no more sense than fighting 'bombing'. How do we defeat 'bombers' around the world? It makes no fucking sense.
posted by empath at 11:51 AM on October 10, 2014 [31 favorites]


It's getting hard for me to take seriously any news/analysis that uses the word "terrorists" as if it had useful meaning. Obviously the term has discursive power, but using it so selectively exposes agendas. Random beheadings are both tragic and grisly, but does beheading an American in Iraq really instill more terror than the drone bombings of innocents in Yemen do for random Yemenis?

It's obvious that ISIS is an incredibly brutal and horrifying army, but I'd like to see the media engage in analysis instead of mythbuilding.
posted by threeants at 12:13 PM on October 10, 2014 [8 favorites]


I mean, the discursive scope of "terrorism" is so blatantly flawed and racist that the article in the OP can use this as its first sentence with a straight face: In 1919, the British government had its first major encounter with terrorism[.] As if it hadn't been committing terror on an immense scale against South Asians, Native Americans, Irish, etc. for hundreds of years.
posted by threeants at 12:15 PM on October 10, 2014 [12 favorites]


Terrorism is just a tactic. There's no such thing as fighting 'terrorism'. You fight people who happen to use terrorism as a military tactic. Fighting terrorism makes no more sense than fighting 'bombing'. How do we defeat 'bombers' around the world? It makes no fucking sense.

But we've fought "drugs" for years, and that's been productive, right?

Really, the "war on terror" and "fighting terrorism" is about publicity, getting support for fighting wars when the "opponents" cannot be classified as a mere "militia" and aren't the official army for any nation or region.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:18 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Symbionese Liberation Army was defeated by police work.

Dedicated to liberating the nonexistent oppressed masses of Symbionia.
posted by jonp72 at 12:38 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Long article, but please read it before commenting.

Thanks for sharing the article. Can you forward it to the White House and Congress?
posted by etherist at 12:42 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Chocolate Pickle: The Symbionese Liberation Army was defeated by police work.
So have many other small gangs that committed small strings of felonies, but we're discussing international terrorist organizations and conflicts in this thread, instead.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:46 PM on October 10, 2014


Excuse me, empath: so-called international "terrorist" organizations. Because you're right.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:49 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


Terrorism is just a tactic. There's no such thing as fighting 'terrorism'. You fight people who happen to use terrorism as a military tactic. Fighting terrorism makes no more sense than fighting 'bombing'. How do we defeat 'bombers' around the world? It makes no fucking sense.

I think this is a very good and clarifying point; but on the other hand, what distinguishes "terrorism," as a category, from something like "bombing" is that terrorism is necessarily oriented to the social context which lies beneath apparatuses of war-making: bombing could be terrorism, ground war could be or entail it, and so on. It's not merely a military tactic, it's a strategy for altering power relations that often takes military or paramilitary forms.

I mean, the discursive scope of "terrorism" is so blatantly flawed and racist that the article in the OP can use this as its first sentence with a straight face: In 1919, the British government had its first major encounter with terrorism[.] As if it hadn't been committing terror on an immense scale against South Asians, Native Americans, Irish, etc. for hundreds of years.

This is a marvelous point. I would conjecture that terrorism only emerged as a distinct word and idea when democracy and republicanism had begun to displace feudal political organization, as a way for the new, non-aristocratic/royal elites to categorically de-legitimize the political violence of the sub-altern, in order that they could discursively corral non-elites into the decision-making processes that those new elites control.
posted by clockzero at 12:51 PM on October 10, 2014 [9 favorites]




I wonder if the logic doesn't go something like this:

1. If we negotiate too early with terrorists, it will legitimize terror as a tactic, which will only entice other embittered groups to take up arms.
2. If we negotiate late, we signal to would-be terrorists that we will exact a price from you in blood, so be sure you have the stones for it.

On the other hand, no U.S. politician or mainstream media outlet ever draws a clear line between not negotiating and loss of life/treasure/soul, perhaps because the American people in general seem to equate negotiation with surrender, and surrender is somehow worse than losing.
posted by echocollate at 1:02 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


clockzero gets it.

The reason it's so hard for politicians in liberal democracies to talk with armed militant opposition is because we're socialized to believe that "violence is never the answer." Of course, that's not true at all, as all liberal democracies have police forces and militaries. Deploying violence on behalf of the state is the role of those institutions. Outside of those institutions, people in liberal democracies will tell you, with a straight face, that the best way to solve a problem is to talk it out, while simultaneously, a member of the local police force shoots a man robbing a 7-11.

Regarding the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Baader-Meinhoff/Red Army Faction, they did in fact have some support, the Red Army Faction in particular. It's just that their support wasn't enough to sustain them when the full force of the organized state came to bear.

In the end it's about power, which is the one thing that elites in liberal democracies want their citizens to forget.
posted by wuwei at 1:06 PM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


In 1919, the British government had its first major encounter with terrorism

Hell, even on using the generally accepted definition of terrorism, this is wrong.
posted by empath at 1:46 PM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


But we've fought "drugs" for years, and that's been productive, right?

Amazingly so. The market offers a steadily growing variety of high-quality psychedelics at steady prices. It's clearly a very productive industry.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:18 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I say ditch the war on drugs and concentrate on the real enemy. What's needed is a war on brain receptors.
posted by telstar at 2:43 PM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Although, you can't usually win a regular war 'militarily' in the strictest sense. At some point, you enter negotiations even if only to negotiate the terms of surrender.

Clausewitz is perhaps the greatest military theorist of all time, and that's his view: "war is the continuation of politics by other means." You don't win by killing all of the enemy, you win by convincing the enemy that it's time for them to stop fighting.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:47 PM on October 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


Don't be fooled by Jonathan Powell's efforts to rebrand himself as a 'peacenik'. Powell, let's not forget, was Tony Blair's right-hand man throughout the Iraq War, and this is a self-serving attempt to shift the blame for the disaster in Iraq. What he is suggesting here is that the crucial mistake in Iraq was not the initial decision to go to war, but the subsequent failure to negotiate with al-Qaida and the Taliban. (This also has the convenient effect of shifting the blame from the British to the Americans.)

Powell's account of the Northern Ireland peace negotiations is equally self-serving. What he fails to mention here is that the British government's back-channel contacts with the IRA had been going on long before he and Blair came on the scene. John Major was talking to the IRA in 1993. Mrs Thatcher was talking to them in 1981. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the British government put a deal on the table in 1981 which the IRA leadership refused to accept.

Powell's confident assertion, that 'terrorists are nearly always keen to talk', is also open to question. Are they? (There seems to be an imperialist assumption at work here, that if we are graciously prepared to talk to the terrorists, they will be only too grateful for the opportunity to talk to us.) This only worked in Northern Ireland because the conflict had reached a bloody and protracted stalemate, and the more far-sighted IRA leaders realised they had more to gain by negotiation. It's not at all clear that the same conditions apply in Iraq today.

For a strong counter-argument to Powell, it's worth taking a look at the work of the historian John Bew, e.g., in Talking to Terrorists: The Myths, Misconceptions and Misapplication of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. This has its self-serving aspects too, particularly when applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which is why Bew's article turns up on the website of a hawkish Israeli think-tank), but it does expose the shallowness of Powell's analysis.
posted by verstegan at 3:13 PM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


verstegan, I'm not prepared to respond to you point-by-point, but regarding ...

Powell's account of the Northern Ireland peace negotiations is equally self-serving. What he fails to mention here is that the British government's back-channel contacts with the IRA had been going on long before he and Blair came on the scene. John Major was talking to the IRA in 1993. Mrs Thatcher was talking to them in 1981. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the British government put a deal on the table in 1981 which the IRA leadership refused to accept.

Powell does say this in the article ...

And while Isis may not want to talk to us at the moment, we need to start building a channel to them, as we did with the IRA in 1972, so we can communicate.

The We, of course, not being himself or Blair, or Labour, but the British Govt of 1972.
posted by philip-random at 3:41 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


is because we're socialized to believe that "violence is never the answer."

I offer the last uh, 250 years of American history as a counterpoint to this theory. I don't think Americans specifically have much of a problem with violence as a solution.
posted by echocollate at 4:18 PM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


in the article, he dismisses them and the Baader-Meinhof gang as "... tiny groups of troubled middle-class children"

So no TRUE Scotsman...
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:18 PM on October 10, 2014


I offer the last uh, 250 years of American history as a counterpoint to this theory. I don't think Americans specifically have much of a problem with violence as a solution.

I think the argument is precisely that there's a disconnect between the actual exercise of violence and manner in which we speak about its legitimate uses.
posted by clockzero at 6:48 PM on October 10, 2014 [5 favorites]


in the article, he dismisses them and the Baader-Meinhof gang as "... tiny groups of troubled middle-class children"

So no TRUE Scotsman...


honestly, TRUE Scotsman feels like a stretch here. A larger excerpt (emphasis mine) for better context:

It is also argued that the fact that the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Symbionese Liberation Army both eventually petered out shows that police work can succeed. But it is ludicrous to compare tiny groups of troubled middle-class children with movements that enjoy real political support like the PLO or the FMLN.

And then, on the topic of the Tamil Tigers ...

it is claimed that Sri Lanka shows a military solution can work. But Sri Lanka doesn’t demonstrate anything of the sort. President Rajapaksa managed to defeat the Tamil Tigers only because its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran – who had been considered a military genius for most of his life – turned out to be a military fool, in the words of one of the Norwegian negotiators who worked on the peace process. If he had stuck to a guerrilla campaign rather than trying to beat the Sri Lankan army in a conventional war, he would probably still be in the jungle fighting now. And the measures used by the Sri Lankan army to wipe out the Tigers are not methods that could be used by any western government that respects human rights and the rule of law. Finally, although the war is over and there is, thank goodness, no sign of the resurgence of a terrorist campaign, the pos litical problem of Tamil rights still remains unresolved, and trouble will continue until it is.

Maybe he's just trying to make the facts hew to his line of argument, or maybe his point is actually pretty solid. Which is that, short of almost genocidal military actions, you can't resolve a political grievance without eventually pursuing some level of political process. You must talk to the terrorists ... or whatever they actually are.
posted by philip-random at 7:08 PM on October 10, 2014


sorry, missed a few words there ...

you can't resolve a grievance from a group that enjoys real political support without eventually pursuing some level of political process.
posted by philip-random at 7:45 PM on October 10, 2014


I offer the last uh, 250 years of American history as a counterpoint to this theory. I don't think Americans specifically have much of a problem with violence as a solution.

I think the argument is precisely that there's a disconnect between the actual exercise of violence and manner in which we speak about its legitimate uses.
Yes, that's what I'm talking about.
posted by wuwei at 5:46 PM on October 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


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