A meeting this past Tuesday near Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad could possibly mark the beginning of the end of the United States’ longest war — the conflict in Afghanistan, which will enter its 15th year this fall. A delegation from the Afghan government met with members of the Taliban — with Pakistani, Chinese and U.S. officials present as observers. Previous efforts like this one have foundered, and this might go nowhere as well. But the war in Afghanistan is going to end in a forum like this and not on the battlefield.
Talking to the Taliban is tough for many Americans to accept. Dick Cheney was speaking for many when he said, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” And yet, says Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, he’s dead wrong. In a new book, “Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace,” Powell argues forcefully that historically, conflicts like the one in Afghanistan have ended only through negotiations and not military victory. Powell is no peacenik, having been an architect of Britain’s support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor is he soft on terrorism. His father, a military man, was wounded by the Irish Republican Army. His brother was on that group’s death list for eight years . When he first met Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, Powell refused to shake his hand.
But over the course of his decade as Blair’s most important aide, Powell came to recognize that terrorism cannot be solved exclusively or largely by military means. He quotes Hugh Orde, the former chief constable in Northern Ireland, who rightly says: There is “no example that I know of, of terrorism being policed out” or eliminated through the use of force.
Governments are loath to talk to terrorists. This is understandable because they regard the groups as barbaric, worry about legitimizing brutality and remain convinced that military force can defeat or at least cripple them. But, Powell points out, most governments end up talking to terrorists. The British government saw the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s as a “conspiracy based on the total perversion of the human spirit” — “subhumans” with “death as their only deliverance,” in the words of Britain’s colonial secretary at the time. And yet it ended up talking to them. The same pattern emerged with the IRA, the Basque separatists, the African National Congress and the Colombian FARC. Israel has even negotiated with Hamas on prisoner exchanges. “I don’t mind the hypocrisy of governments on the subject of talking to terrorists,” writes Powell, “but I do mind the fact that we never seem to learn from past experiences, often with devastating consequences.”
The central idea behind Powell’s argument is simple enough: Terrorism is a reflection of an underlying political problem that almost always needs to be addressed politically. In Afghanistan, it reflects the reality that some part of the Pashtun population — which is about 50 percent of the country — believes that its interests are not represented by the government in Kabul. The fact that the Taliban remains a force to be reckoned with — after almost 14 years of U.S. military intervention, a surge that tripled U.S. forces in the field, several elections and $1 trillion spent to oppose it — suggests that it has some significant public support.
This week’s negotiations might go nowhere. There are many parties involved and factions within each of them. But one of the lessons that Powell notes in the book is that often these talks begin too late because governments believe that one last military push will put the terrorists on the defensive, even though there is “precious little empirical evidence to support this one last heave argument.”
He reminds us that a crucial part of Gen. David Petraeus’s surge in Iraq was reaching out to Sunni militants who had been fighting U.S. forces, addressing their grievances and indeed bribing them to move from foes to friends. He notes that Petraeus admitted that the United States waited too long before it talked to people “with American blood on their hands.”
Of course none of this would apply to the Islamic State, or would it? In fact, Powell is bold enough to suggest that it could. After all, this is a particularly brutal and murderous group, but it is successful largely because it has tapped into the fears and rage of disempowered Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. That is a political grievance that can only be addressed politically.
Talking to terrorists is not giving in to their demands, argues Powell. But because governments are so spooked by the image and the optics of it all, they usually delay, fumble, make mistakes and prolong conflicts that could be resolved earlier and with much less bloodshed on all sides.