Diplomacy works, so to speak

Opinions differ on whether talking to militant groups has positive political ramifications, but at the Fifth Annual Al Jazeera Forum this week, the idea that negotiations ultimately lead to the best outcomes for both sides was a constant.

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DOHA // On a trip to Malaysia in 1989, Thabo Mbeki and his delegation from the African National Congress were forced to find new lodgings after the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, refused to share her hotel with "terrorists".

Yet South Africa's apartheid leadership had already opened a dialogue with the ANC - the political party of resistance, which decades prior had a militant wing - one that would ultimately bring an end to more than four decades of racial segregation. Mr Mbeki went on to become president of South Africa. "In the end," he said, during his keynote speech at the Fifth Annual Al Jazeera Forum on Monday, "the regime understood that even if it continued to resist change, ultimately it saw the negotiations as the only way with which it could bargain for some share of power."

That theme ran throughout the forum here this week: when a conflict bogs down, talks are often the best route to peace and a share of the spoils for all. The hard part is deciding when, how and with whom to parlay. "We need to move away from the notion of whether to engage to what kind of engagement," said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa programme director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict analyst. He urged the US to talk with supposedly unsavoury elements such as Hamas. "You can't create peace by self-selecting those with whom you'll engage."

Discussion during the three-day event centred around some of the Muslim world's most pressing problems, including Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan. A Monday session sought alternatives to the great tangle that is the peace process, but delivered mostly denunciations. A South African journalist and commentator, Allister Sparks, extended the parallels with his homeland, comparing Israel to the apartheid regime and the Palestinian territories to the camps where it kept South Africans from the black majority. "Like the bantustans, they are phoney homelands ? used to deny them citizenship," he said.

Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, attacked the other side. "It is staggering to see, despite the constraints around them, how badly the Palestinian leadership has done," he said. Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, was an equal-opportunity offender. He denounced Hamas for attacking civilians, said Israel's international backers could be seen as supporting an occupation and called out the Arab world. "Progress has been achieved neither by a charm offensive, such as the Arab Peace Initiative, or an offensive offensive," he said. A few possible solutions were presented. Mr Levy envisioned progressives from both sides uniting to create "a coalition, not even cooperation, but all rowing, perhaps, in the direction of 1967 de-occupation". Arguing that Palestinians have proven they will never give up their land, Basheer Nafi, a historian and Middle East analyst, said the one-state solution "offers the only genuine resolution to this conflict". Many felt that first the fighting had to cease. Ibrahim el Moussaoui, the head of Hizbollah's media relations, said Hizbollah would not engage the US until it stopped supporting Israeli aggression. Similarly, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, a former Taliban foreign minister, saw the country's upcoming peace jirga, concurrent with the launch of the US forces' campaign in Kandahar, as problematic. "Just imagine I'm talking to you but at the same time your men are attacking my home," he said in an interview on the sidelines of the forum. "This does not work - it has a negative psychological impact." Yet precedents abound. Oliver McTernan, the director of the conflict resolution consultancy Forward Thinking, said British officials were in direct contact with the Irish Republic Army throughout most of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Mark Perry, a US foreign affairs analyst, argued that negotiations with Sunnis intensified during the peak of violence in Iraq. "It wasn't the surge that defeated the insurgents in Iraq, it was talking to them," he said. Sparks pointed again to South Africa. "If you wait until terrorists lay down their arms to begin negotiations, you'll never get started." The United States refuses to negotiate directly with the Taliban, Hamas and Hizbollah, in part because it perceives them as terrorists, though others might call them freedom fighters. Yet the Obama administration has voiced support for Afghan government negotiations with the Taliban. In February, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said: "We are talking to people." That did not include direct contact with Taliban leaders because they had yet to renounce al Qa'eda, he said. "The agenda of the Taliban is only a national agenda, not an international agenda," Mr Muttawakil said during a panel discussing the issue of talking with the Taliban. The distinction distances the Taliban from other caliphate-seeking, pan-Islamist jihadi affiliates of al Qa'eda. Last week, a Hamas official said the group wanted to establish "open and stable ties" with the United States. "The US and others, they give a distorted image of the resistance," said Osama Hamdan, a spokesman for Hamas. Several analysts urged the United States to alter its image of the Taliban and begin talks. The current US plan in Afghanistan is focused on peeling off and "reintegrating" moderate low- and mid-level soldiers in the hopes of weakening the Taliban's negotiating position. "Losers cannot be choosers," said Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, referring to the US. "This cannot be part of the solution," Mr Muttawakil agreed. "There are no moderate or hardline Taliban, there is only one Taliban, under Mullah Omar, and they must talk to them." This may explain why gains have been minimal. "Reintegration is not going particularly well," said Robert Grenier, a consultant and former CIA station chief in Islamabad. "Momentum is building for some sort of political reconciliation that involves the leaders of the insurgency." Just last week, Taliban representatives and Afghan government delegates met in the Maldives. Mr Muttawakil dismissed these talks. "There's a lot of money out there, and some are just using this as a business." To negotiate sincerely with Mullah Omar, Mr Muttawakil said, the US and Afghan governments must halt military operations, release Taliban detainees in Guantanamo and Bagram, remove the blacklist of Taliban to be captured or killed and allow the Taliban an office, an address where they can be reached. "The Taliban don't trust all these people," he said. "They don't believe all the talk." The Taliban might be willing to accept the Afghan constitution, which incorporates elements of Sharia. Key negotiating points would involve the system of governance and a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign troops. "It is time to end this war," said the former Taliban foreign minister. dlepeska@thenational.ae