Should we negotiate with ‘terrorists’ or not?
With the latest case of exchange of prisoners of the US Government and release of Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban, we still saw a big dilemma among policymakers and those who plan development and post-conflict recovery phases regarding negotiations with so-called terrorists. We also saw that negotiation was not done for the principles but for solutions, an approach that should be adapted for longer term strategy in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Also, lately there are initiatives to a joint response to the developments in Iraq but not only. There is more fear among international community from the ISIS and there are initiatives to joint responses against ISIS. Interventions from the air just achieve to do whatever ISIS wants the west to do because it does not involve them in the process at all. Despite the fact that ISIS refuses to negotiate anything with anyone, airstrikes against targets will just qualify ISIS for negotiation in future similar to air strikes in Afghanistan throughout 2000s that qualified the Taliban for negotiations later. With the horrific actions of the ISIS and decapitation of their hostages, does the situation change drastically in “negotiations” between US, European states and others in one side and the ISIS and other organisations in the other? In principle, no. Despite its horrific past and support for violence, Hammas, Hesbollah, Taliban and other type of such political movements seem to be good negotiating partners in comparison with the ISIS.
Despite the successful ‘negotiation’ there is still doubt among decision makers and academics on the power of negotiations. One of the arguments also among the academics against negotiating is that they get motivated and recognised to do what they do-terrorize civilians to reach their goals and not fulfil parts of agreements out of negotiations. As Harmonie Toros argues ‘such a course of action would legitimize the terrorists and terrorism more broadly (Toros, 2008: 408) and the other question that Toros raises implicitly is that whether legitimising ‘terrorists is a bad thing?!’ when it comes to dealing with violence and finding solutions on transforming conflicts in possibly smaller scale violence conflict instead of ignoring them totally. The ‘widening’ the scope of study and therefore widening also the scope of thought out of ‘state view’ enables a different approach to this problem. This is also argued by Maskaliunaite ‘the very fact that the subject of terrorism is studied from so many different angles may well be an advantage and not a shortcoming of the field’ (Maskaliunaite quoted on Jackson, 2009:13). Practically this enables different understanding of insurgencies and ‘terrorist’ organisations and therefore different approach to negotiating with them.
Critical Study is crucial approach also in other work of other scholars that even Toros uses in her argumentation (Jackson, 2011; Gunning, 2007; Richardson, 2006) and others that generally argue that labeling entire organisations as ‘terrorist’ does not contribute to finding solutions and decreasing intensity of conflict and violence. Similarly also the United Nations Security Council Resolution on Terrorism reinforces the fact that ‘terrorism cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic group (UNSC, 2006)’. Also this is supported also by Ranstrop where he identifies problems with terrorism studies as lacking evidence based research (Ranstrop, 2009: 17) similarly also Silke discusses that ‘much of the writing in the crucial areas of terrorism research…is impressionistic, superficial and at the same time often also pretentious, venturing far -reaching generalizations on the basis of episodic evidence’ (Silke, 2009: 36). According to these interpretations, the states leave no open solutions but to militarily confront ‘terrorism’ and not negotiate.
Labelling of groups as terrorist is the first division where the question of negotiation comes into surface as ‘once one act carried out by a group is categorized as ‘terrorist’, the group’s subsequent actions will often also be categorized as such even though they may be very different from the former and may not correspond to ‘terrorist’ actions (Toros, 2008: 409)’ and also practically this has been policy of the United States for many decades. Since Ronald Reagan framed the debate over whether to talk to terrorists in terms that still dominate the debate today. ‘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 (Cambanis, 2010)’ and to be continued in 2000’s by President George W. Bush who said ‘You’ve got to be strong, not weak’. The only way to deal with these people is to bring them to justice. You can’t talk to them. You can’t negotiate with them (Bush, 2003)’. And this tradition of ‘state approach’ towards these problems is explained earlier than 9/11 events by the Director of Defence and Policy Studies of Cato Institute where he says that ‘most attention has been focused on combating terrorism by deterring and disrupting it beforehand and retaliating against it after the fact. Less attention has been paid to what motivates terrorists to launch attacks (Eland, 1998)’.
So the first problem starts with the terminology and the definition of terrorism as idea and action as well. ‘Terrorism’ or ‘terrorists’ are labels used to define the government perspective on ‘war on terror’ more than it is used to describe actions or ideas of the movements that are violent and do such actions that are considered terrorist.
Tores’ argument that ‘terrorism can be understood as a violent means aimed at triggering political change by affecting a larger audience than its immediate target that is to be examined using both problem-solving and critical theory and focusing on its socio-historical context in an analysis embedded in broader social and political theory that acknowledges a normative role to theory ’ is valid and of a crucial importance in setting the grounds for negotiation with so called ‘terrorists’ as their actions are not aiming at their primary victims or primary targets but instead they have larger goals and want to make a point with their actions.
Governments are in a very difficult position with this framework. On one hand the debate that legitimising terrorists will increase and intensify their actions is based on government discourse in a way and after de-legitimising and demonising them (UN, 2002: 6) puts government into a very difficult position to negotiate afterwards with such groups which brings another problem in the field of study. Legitimisation of the groups is normally done by the governments’ side and in a way governments control with the legitimisation. Toros’ argument about this is that ‘that talks legitimize terrorists and therefore weaken the norm of nonviolence appears to be based on a two-dimensional understanding of legitimacy, in which states have legitimacy and simply grant or deny it to insurgents (Toros, 2008: 413).
The traditional method of not negotiating with ‘terrorists’ has led to inability to address the problems and gave states limited access to such groups. The Afghan Government understood this earlier than International community and created Reconciliation Council which aims to ‘end inter-group armed hostilities, resolve unsettled national issues, facilitate healing of the wounds caused by past injustices, and take necessary measures to prevent the repeat of the civil war and its destruction (2005)’.
The case of Afghan Taliban vs ISIS
After the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 (9/11) and the attack in Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban movement, the United States lead anti-terrorism doctrine of cutting everything that has to do with terrorism and dividing the situation in ‘good and evil’. What President Bush indicated with his statement ‘Over time, it’s going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity? You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror (CNN, 2001)’ has been a clear division of discourse that no one can negotiate, help, deliver humanitarian aid or have any contacts whatsoever with ‘terrorists’, yet the negotiations have been held between the US Government and the Taliban.
Afghanistan and the Taliban regime was the main target in lack of Al Qaeda physical targets and for supporting Al Qaeda. Although the Taliban is a wider regional movement, negotiating with the Afghan Taliban has been inevitable because their goal is to deny the west’s victory in Afghanistan in the public discourse level. Also because of many other implications with the regional issues such as Pakistan impact, dispute over Kashmir, invasion in Iraq, Palestine and other problems, many volunteers find their way to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. In this context, as stated by former British Ambassador in Kabul ‘In particular, America will need itself to talk to all the internal and external parties to the conflict, including the Taliban (Cowper-Coles, 2011: 291)’ exactly because of these implications. By negotiating, one focuses the Taliban in domestic affairs and not region and international affairs.
ISIS is much more different from all Islamic movements that we have seen so far because of its political aims, organisation and ideology. Negotiations with the ISIS at any point in the future will be asymmetrically and terribly difficult not because of practical issues but rather because of its nature. First of all, its precise size is unclear and will always be due to atrocities and crimes committed openly but also because it is thought to include thousands of foreign fighters that will “disappear” as soon as such organisation shakes or weakens.
Reconciling with ISIS is not an option for the US and others but defeating them will be as painful as reconciling due to the operational nature of the ISIS units. Additionally, the negotiations need authoritative guarantees which nobody is nor will be in position to provide on ISIS behalf. At the moment, negotiations in this front seem impossible for both sides but US and others should learn from both Afghanistan and Iraq to prepare for such negotiations.
Negotiations for solutions not principles
In 2001 after the 9/11 events, the US gave an ultimatum to the Taliban government to handover Osama Bin Laden and heads of Taliban movement started closing opportunities for negotiating. When attacks started against Afghanistan, no one wanted to negotiate anymore. As a result, Al Qaeda expanded rapidly in public discourse and gained sympathy not only in Middle East and Africa but also in Europe.
Also the mainstream studies on Al Qaeda and Taliban of the time such as RAND and other policy documents during Bush Administration are mainly based on how to destroy them and not how to manage them. But lately, with the Obama Administration promoting reconciliation with the Taliban is an idea that has reappeared and is being spoken more often. Even in the administration’s own White Paper on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan (America.gov, 2009, SAIS, 2009). But not only US Government is doing that but European Governments participating in the Coalition forces as well. New German military guidelines are looking more into ‘local concepts of legitimacy (Spiegel, 2012)’ although as it appears, the local population support for the Taliban is not increasing. According to a report assessing current strategy about Afghanistan ‘reconciling with the Taliban is both premature and unnecessary for the success of Western aims. The Afghan public, by an overwhelming margin of 82 % to 4 %, is still very much opposed to the Taliban (Tellis, 2009: v)’.
But the reality in the field is different in terms of control over the territory and stability. In 2007, 54% or Afghanistan territory was considered as ‘Taliban heavily active’ with 34% with ‘substantial Taliban insurgent activity’ and followed with 8% of territory where there was no Taliban activity (CISD, 2009). The Taliban strategy in Afghanistan is working in a way due to lack of state structures and high corruption. It is gaining more support following inability of ISAF and other developing agencies to create sustainable solutions. ‘The Taliban appears to be winning on another front – the battle for hearts and minds (CISD, 2009)’, so this ‘battle’ is about principles and not solutions.
What ISAF and other international community didn’t count is strategies and tactics of Taliban to gain control and gain popularity among local population. Use of terror and violence is often mean of gaining power among local population from the Taliban and again this is a principal matter that is “justifiable” from a Taliban perspective. Principals of Taliban movement is returning the rule of Sharia Law and governing Afghanistan whereas concepts of US democracy and freedom hardly make sense in their views.
Negotiations about principles in this regard are designed to fail whereas concentration of negotiations should be on a technical levels to ensure security is increased and stability to bigger scale.
Negotiations on technical and local level
Because Taliban is wider movement it does not mean that one should negotiate only with the leaders of the Taliban. As rightly suggested in a backgrounder in 2010 ‘Instead of conferring legitimacy on senior Taliban leaders in Pakistan by seeking high level political negotiations, the U.S. should focus on reconciling with Taliban commanders on the ground in Afghanistan (Curtis, 2010)’, to negotiating with the Taliban in local level, can be of advantage in terms of establishing some sort of stability. Giving political power in the local level and legitimising groups in political forms decreases chances of violence or at least institutionalises the accountability of such individuals. Initially it is also admitted as the SRSG Lakhdar Brahimi in ‘The Bonn talks were dominated by one group and at that time nobody was ready to consider the partly defeated side of the conflict; therefore, the Taliban were left by themselves, which gave an opportunity to spoilers to regroup (Stanekzai, 2008)’ and also it is often argued that ‘the Taliban are an active insurgency that is very difficult to fight the idea of reconciliation, understood as a negotiated bargain with either the Taliban leadership or its base soldiery, is unlikely to be successful at this point in time (Tellis, 2009: 3).
But as stated by the former British Ambassador in Afghanistan Cowper-Coles that ‘successful stabilisation requires strategic stamina, massive resources, lots of time and plenty of ambition (Cowper-Coles, 2011: 285)’ the persistence in Afghanistan has been more into questioning the ways of system that Taliban wants to install rather than trying to find mediated solutions while also including Taliban in decision making and engaging them in the reconciliation process. By engaging Taliban in the process of negotiations in a way the local support for them engages in creation of accountability process and therefore also a system of governance and democracy. Such argument is also supported by modern counter-insurgency as mobilising structures such as tribal and social structures can be channelised to political empowerment instead of violence.
Taliban is also a group that is influenced by many other geo-political factors, the de-radicalisation was unable to proceed further due to many other events that happened when reconciliation started in a small scale. As it started in 2003 when ‘some moderate elements of the former Taliban regime approached Kabul and eventually accepted a reconciliation offer and it is likely that later negotiations too only involved noncombatant elements of the old Taliban government or individual commanders’ (Giustozzi, 2010: 189)’ it was possibly a good time to start negotiating with the Taliban at that time and include them in the process but intervention in Iraq by the coalition forces happened in the same year, which might have had impacted the Taliban’s.
Although this paper looks at the impact that negotiations can have on reducing violence and is specifically looking at the Taliban movement in Afghanistan context, it is known that the process of negotiations does not entirely depend on the Taliban or the Afghanistan Government or the Coalition forces per say.
The critical terrorism studies imply a wider inclusion of factors that impact such problems and tend to explain this phenomenon from a critical perspective, as well as explain the reasons and obstacles that are on path of negotiation.
One of the biggest challenges of negotiating with such movements comes as a result of their labeling as terrorists by states. This puts states in a very difficult position to negotiate as they are, in theory, working against their own interests. However, practically speaking, states need to negotiate with ‘terrorists’ through media, mediators or in a proper negotiation processes.
Another challenge faced in negotiation with ‘terrorists’, is the affection of violence that they bring to the negotiation table. From a state-centric perspective this is illegal and unacceptable because of the Rule of Law and legal framework. Thus, the US government is unable to officially negotiate with the Taliban and so is the Afghan Government.
 International Security Assistance Forces
 Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations
Abit Hoxha is a doctoral researcher at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) in the INFOCORE project in January 2014. He earned his first degree in Political Science in 2005 from the University of Prishtina in Kosovo and holds MA degree from the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communication ( 2007), focusing on ‘War and Post-War Reporting in Kosovo’. He studied for his second postgraduate degree at the Durham Global Security Institute at the Durham University in UK focusing on Social Movements and Islam. He worked in various institutions both government and non-government sector in Kosovo including as researcher for the Kosovo based think tank, Kosovar Center for Security Studies, World Bank-Kosovo Youth Development Project, UNDP in Kosovo-Support to Security Sector Development and other positions. Abit has been also involved in the Kosovar media research working on different subjects and published academic and non-academic articles.
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*This paper was part of the post-graduate course at Durham Global Security Institute at the Durham University in the United Kingdom in 2011-12. Updates on the ISIS and latest developments are recent. Views expressed in this paper are personal and do not represent views of any institution that the author is affiliated with.
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*Cover image ‘Syria, Aleppo’ by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation