Sitting down with terrorists

Generations in the West have been raised to accept unthinkingly that the one thing their governments never do with terrorists, or with any political body affiliated to terrorist acts, is talk. But that simply isn¿t true. They have, they do and they must.

Pep Montserrat for The National
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Images of war and terror are not difficult to conjure. The components are all so familiar. Across the decades, across the centuries, there will be dust and confusion and pain.

There will be loss and brutality and fire and smoke. There will be warriors and victims, rebels, insurgents, resistance, terrorists, enemies of the state … the labels may differ from conflict to conflict. There will be blood all the same.

But however varied the causes or distant the battlefields, however advanced or meagre the weapons in any side's armoury, or apparently intractable the causes, there is really only one image that shows any conflict's end. And it isn't an image of victory or defeat. It is one of agreement - reluctant perhaps, imperfect almost certainly, but agreement nevertheless.

There will be representatives, a table and a deal. Peace will be signed off with the flourish of a fountain pen, ultimately brokered not by guns but by days, maybe weeks, even years, of talks.

This means at some point before every resolution the unthinkable has to be thought. At some point the enemy has to be engaged, not in violence, but in dialogue.

As unpalatable as it remains to many, this is a truth borne out across history. Many factors may complicate it and conspire to thwart its attempt but none can negate it.

If reports are to be believed, then it is a truth the US government quietly acknowledged last week with its unofficial endorsement of plans to open a Taliban political office in Qatar. The proposed office would be the first internationally recognised representation for the Taliban since it was ousted from power by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

For many reasons its prospective establishment carries symbolic as well as real significance, marking America's first clear step on a path that can only lead to the Taliban's inclusion in open political dialogue.

It is a prospect that will make many recoil. Some will view the very notion as tantamount to a betrayal of the lives lost in the conflict that has raged in Afghanistan and been felt far more widely in acts of terrorism in the US, Britain and beyond.

The inevitable questions bubble up. How can any civilised government countenance contact with an organisation so inextricably linked to acts of terror and violence? How can any communication be sought when the Taliban's rule was defined by such intransigent interpretation of Islamic law, by public executions, by the banning of education of women and by offering a safe haven for Al Qaeda terrorists? How can we ever talk to those once cast out as the enemies of everything worth defending?

Generations in the West have been raised to accept unthinkingly that the one thing their governments never do with terrorists, or with any political body affiliated to terrorist acts, is talk.

But that simply isn't true. They have, they do and they must.

Too often critics confuse talking and listening with negotiating. Hard-liners on any side of an argument tend to read an openness to communication as a sign of weakness. But the truth is no position of power can be maintained from one of ignorance.

During the depths of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, successive British governments publicly denied all contact with the IRA. But "a line of communication" was held between the British state and Irish republicans.

Margaret Thatcher's administration drew on it, as did that of her successor, John Major. Publicly, he said the thought of talking to representatives of the IRA "turned his stomach". Behind the scenes, meetings between such representatives and civil servants of the British government did take place.

The real question worth asking and worth struggling to answer is not whether to talk to terrorists; it is which ones to talk to and when?

Because it is not always good to talk. Negotiating with terrorists who are on the crest of a wave of propaganda, confidence and momentum is a very different prospect to engaging with them, or those who represent them, once they have come to realise their aims are unattainable by violent means.

In 1972, IRA operatives were flown to London to meet senior British politicians. The meeting was a disaster, with the IRA simply reading a prepared statement of demands and rejecting any negotiation that did not agree to British withdrawal.

The Republicans concluded their violence had brought the British government to the table. As a strategy it had yielded results but had not gone far enough. Two days after the talks the IRA detonated 22 bombs across Belfast in what became known as Bloody Friday.

Valuable lessons were learnt, according to the Northern Ireland secretary of the day. But crucially, the end game remained unchanged: resolution through dialogue.

Arguably the success of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 - albeit brokered in very different circumstances and at a very different time - owed something to all the failures that had gone before.

According to Tony Blair, it also owed much to the "personal relationships", fraught and flawed and strained as they may have been, established between him and the key players Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams from the Nationalist side, and Ian Paisley from the Unionists. It allowed Blair to occupy the role of "good faith go-between" for parties who had lost all sense of good faith in each other.

Such relationships cannot be summoned on a whim. They take time. And they take talk.

A glance across the debating chambers of the world shows just how fluid the most seemingly intractable situations can be, given time. Many groups once on the US state department's official list of terrorist organisations have since become partners in pursuing peace and furthering democracy.

The African National Congress is now the democratically elected ruling party in South Africa; the provisional IRA preaches non-violence and its long-time leader McGuinness is Northern Ireland's deputy first minister; Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organisation have become players in the Middle East peace negotiations.

But just as this shift is possible, might the opposite also be true? The very term terrorist is problematic and emotive, based not simply on an objective assessment of behaviour but wrapped up in political judgement. It is a truism, but one that bears repetition, that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

Britain, France and America have all been swift to support the rebel forces in Libya. But with the dust yet to settle on the fall of Col Muammar Qaddafi, it is far from clear quite who these forces truly are.

So-called "climbers" from the old regime have made their way into the new. The National Transitionary Council must navigate a line between moderate Islamist and liberal secular views. And there, in the already heady mix, are fight-hardened rebels - citizens - with guns and an unclear agenda. Will yesterday's freedom fighters become tomorrow's terrorists if that agenda flies against the prevailing wind?

Only last week the former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, stated that talking to terrorists "is necessary". Speaking in London as part of the BBC's series of Reith Lectures, she said: "Talking doesn't mean approval. It is a way of exploring peaceful options; what compromises, if any, can be reached."

She did not exclude the prospect of talking to components of Al Qaeda and voiced her belief that talks between the West and Hamas were continuing.

Opponents to engaging in dialogue with those associated with terror argue that it legitimises strategies of violence. But this is a self-absorbed misunderstanding of the roots of militancy and how its proponents define themselves. It is also self-defeating.

Fighters in the back alleys of Gaza, or the jungles of Sri Lanka, or the foothills and mountains of Kashmir, wage war for their own reasons, not to gain the approval of any political elite.

Ignoring them will not reduce their sense of "legitimacy", although it may increase their hold. Killing them will not address the issues for which they fight or the circumstances from which they rise up. Ultimately there must be dialogue.

High among the problems to be addressed with regards to the Taliban's prospective office in Qatar will be with whom that dialogue is made. Finding a single leader in such a disparate body will be a challenge even before effort is spent seeking common ground.

The office will not be an embassy or consulate, but a residence where the Taliban have a political office. After years of violence it might be a start of sorts.

Because whoever the players, and whatever the prize at stake, every conflict is only ever resolved by dialogue. Talking and listening are the only ultimate arbiters.

Laura Collins is a senior features writer with The National.