Editor’s Note: Jonathan Powell was Chief of Staff for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and is now head of the charity Inter-Mediate. His book “Talking to Terrorists How to End Armed Conflicts” is published by Bodley Head. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Revenge is not the best way to go about tackling terrorist groups, writes Jonathan Powell
History suggests you need a coolly thought out strategy, he says
Powell: Talking is not an alternative to fighting -- they have to go hand in hand
All conflicts are capable of resolution, he writes
When people watch the cold-blooded beheading of a western journalist on TV they react emotionally. They want revenge. So do I. But I have come to understand that is not the best way to go about tackling terrorist groups. History suggests you need a coolly thought-out strategy if you want to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS as U.S. President Barack Obama put it, rather than a knee-jerk reaction.
Colin Parry’s 12-year-old son Tim died in his arms after being blown up by an IRA bomb in the northern English town of Warrington in 1993. Last week at Cheltenham Literary Festival Parry said that if he had known that Prime Minister John Major had been corresponding with the IRA when that bomb went off he would have been horrified. But if you had asked him six months later he said he would have welcomed Major’s attempt to end the conflict through talking.
If even victims can see the wisdom of talking to terrorists why can’t policy makers? I have been accused of being naive for even suggesting the idea. But it is not an idea I have pulled out of thin air – a study of conflicts over the last 30 years shows that governments when confronted by a new terrorist group invariably say they won’t talk to them but nearly always end up doing so from South Africa to El Salvador to Indonesia.
This is not to say that talking is an alternative to fighting – they have to go hand in hand. Nor am I suggesting sitting down with ISIS now to negotiate even if they were prepared to sit down with us. Negotiations can only happen when the conditions are right, usually when a mutually hurting stalemate is in place and both sides realize they cannot win by military means.
But people forget how long the process leading up to a successful negotiation can take. The British government opened up a secret channel to the IRA in 1972 and yet the real negotiations only happened in 1991-93 when Major opened his correspondence with Irish republican politician Martin McGuinness. It takes a long time for armed groups to realize that their demands are unachievable and to start to consider what else they would settle for.
The same is true of ISIS. No one is going to agree to a universal caliphate. But once ISIS realizes they can’t win then they may be prepared to talk and we need to open a secret channel now to give time to establish enough trust to move to negotiations when the moment comes. There are practical things we can talk to them about. The ex-Baathists and ex-Iraqi army offices that make up a major part of the ISIS force have genuine grievances about the way they were treated by the sectarian Maliki government. We can discuss with them ways of ensuring Sunnis have a powerful voice in a Shia majority Iraq.
The real problem is that each new terrorist group comes as a surprise to us. The philosopher John Gray considers that the “obstacle to coping with the terrorist threat is the belief that it is unlike anything in the past.”
I suggested in 2008 when I had left government that on the basis of my experience in Northern Ireland we ought to speak to Hamas, the Taliban and al Qaeda. The government spokesman dismissed my comments saying that while Her Majesty’s Government might be prepared to talk to the IRA and the PLO, they would never talk to these new groups. In the subsequent six years however the Israeli and U.S. governments have negotiated a cease-fire with Hamas, the U.S. government has negotiated the release of Sergeant Bowe Berghdal with the Taliban and a former Director-General of MI5 has said we should be talking to al Qaeda.
If the position can change so quickly on these groups then there is every reason to suppose the same can happen with ISIS.
Terrorism is not going to disappear even if we deal with al Qaeda and ISIS. People keep hoping for technological solutions like drones or jungle penetrating radar, but as fast as we develop them the terrorists find a way round them. So we should recognize that we already have the only tools we will ever have for dealing with terrorism and those are fighting and talking. By using only one tool, counter terrorism measures, we are not going to solve the problem unless we think we can kill each and every one of them. What we need to do is to combine security pressure down on the terrorist group with giving them a political way out through talking.
Negotiations with terrorists are almost never successful straight away. Eventual success is built on multiple failures as in Northern Ireland and Spain. But all conflicts are capable of resolution. What we need is leaders who believe they can solve the problem and are willing to take the necessary risks to do so. Above all we need to learn from our past mistakes and successes instead of trying to reinvent the wheel very time we meet a new armed group.