Welcome to The Internationalist, a new monthly foreign-affairs column by Thanassis Cambanis for the Ideas section of the Boston Globe.
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Talk to terrorists

How negotiating will make us stronger

A former Taliban fighter carried a rocket launcher before surrendering it to Afghan authorities in Herat, west of Afghanistan. (Reza Shirmohammad/AP Photo) A former Taliban fighter carried a rocket launcher before surrendering it to Afghan authorities in Herat, west of Afghanistan.
By Thanassis Cambanis
December 12, 2010

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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,” Reagan said in 1985. “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.”

America, officially at least, doesn’t negotiate with terrorists: a blanket ban driven by moral outrage and enshrined in United States policy. Most government officials are prohibited from meeting with members of groups on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list. Intelligence operatives are discouraged from direct contact with terrorists, even for the purpose of gathering information.

President Clinton was roundly attacked when diplomats met with the Taliban in the 1990s. President George W. Bush was accused of appeasement when his administration approached Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Enraged detractors invoked Munich and ridiculed presidential candidate Barack Obama when he said he would meet Iran and other American adversaries “without preconditions.” The only proper time to talk to terrorists is after they’ve been destroyed, this thinking goes; any retreat from the maximalist position will cost America dearly.

Now, however, an increasingly assertive group of “engagement hawks” — a group of professional diplomats, military officers, and academics — is arguing that a mindless, macho refusal to engage might be causing as much harm as terrorism itself. Brushing off dialogue with killers might look tough, they say, but it is dangerously naive, and betrays an alarming ignorance of how, historically, intractable conflicts have actually been resolved. And today, after a decade of war against stateless terrorists that has claimed thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of foreign lives, and cost trillions of dollars, it’s all the more important that we choose the most effective methods over the ones that play on easy emotions.

When it comes to terrorists, “The goal is to persuade them that violence, terrorism, use of force might get attention, but it won’t get them what they want,” says Thomas R. Pickering, a career American diplomat who has spent the decade since his retirement from the State Department working as an unofficial liaison to many of America’s bitterest foes. “You don’t get to choose your enemies....We want to convince them it’s better to come inside the tent, where we all behave.”

One of the engagement hawks’ more compelling arguments is that America already talks to terrorists, but does so in such a piecemeal fashion that it can ultimately harm our interests. Reagan himself wanted so badly to free American hostages in Lebanon that his administration secretly sold weapons to Iran, greatly benefiting the patrons of the Islamist militants he memorably dubbed the “assassins in Beirut.” A more systematic approach would ensure that when the government finally decides to talk, the experts wouldn’t be overlooked. Some scholars also argue that, given our current policy, we should define “terrorism” more narrowly, allowing us to open channels with groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Taliban, which have used terrorist tactics but which have limited territorial and political ambitions. In books with titles like “Resistance,” “Talking to Terrorists,” and “Talking to the Enemy,” they are making arguments that range from radical (America should immediately recognize some Islamist movements as legitimate resistance groups) to modest (America needs to add more diplomatic tools to its munitions-heavy counter-terrorism kit).

Politically, engagement is as perilous as ever. Elected officials don’t want to find themselves responding to charges that they’ve buckled to terrorists. Obama has been tarred as a bad friend to Israel, in part because of early hints that some members of his administration supported dialogue with Hamas (the White House quickly denied any policy shift). Members of Congress who privately support normalizing relations with Hamas and Hezbollah say they will never admit their true views in public because it would cost them their seats.

But as veterans of the diplomatic black arts, the engagement hawks are much less concerned with political appearances than with the mechanics of what actually works. They’ve spent endless hours in anonymous conference rooms arguing with leaders of groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban — even with allies of Al Qaeda. They’ve shuttled to neutral cities in Switzerland and Scandinavia. They’ve hovered on the furtive fringes of already-secret “Track Two” conferences where academics hold offline discussions on behalf of their political faction or government.

Reflexive revulsion at talking to terrorists, they say, doesn’t help keep America and its allies safer. It also allows us to avoid the much harder questions of when and how to talk to terrorists. Ultimately, our objective is dissuade the enemy from bombing civilians or taking hostages: Success or failure on that front is the yardstick against which tactics like dialogue and drone strikes should be measured.

The current backlash against the “don’t talk” policy began among frustrated military officers, who found the prohibition made it nearly impossible for them to solve the day-to-day problems of occupying and stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. Historian Mark Perry chronicles this early, damning history in his book “Talking to Terrorists,” whose most arresting revelations portray senior American military officers, mostly Marines, building back-channel connections to the leaders of the anti-American Sunni insurgency in Iraq’s Anbar province as early as the first year of the war. Defense Department officials shut down the talks as soon as they learned of them, likening the Iraqi fighters to “Nazis.”

Once they’d returned from their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, these disgruntled officers published broadsides critical of American strategy during stints at the military’s various command colleges. Their work led to the current vogue of counterinsurgency doctrine in US military circles. One of its central tenets is that success requires winning the loyalty of hostile foreign populations, which almost always means collaborating with former insurgents or terrorists.

By 2005, respected defense community journals like Military Review and Armed Forces Journal were featuring a steady stream of articles espousing the heretical view that America would benefit from talking to the enemies it was fighting. It was embodied in the military’s counterinsurgency field manual, released in December 2006, and the surge in Iraq was in part a product of this new wave of thinking. Around this time, some advisers to the Bush administration started entertaining diplomatic overtures to groups like the Taliban and Hamas.

Ideas that had sprouted in unofficial military-dominated forums like the online Small Wars Journal crossed over into the mainstream. Influential writers who straddle the realms of academia and policy began calling for engagement, including George Mitchell and Samantha Power. Rob Malley, a Middle East expert who worked for President Clinton, began writing pointed essays in The New York Review of Books in 2005 with Palestinian thinker Hussein Agha that argued for an acceptance of Hamas. Unfolding events lent momentum to their views: First, Hamas won the Palestinian elections, and then neighboring Hezbollah rebounded as a dominant political force in Lebanon after its 2006 war with Israel. America and its close ally Israel pushed for total isolation of both movements, but other Western governments maintained relations with both groups. A chorus of voices in the United States pointed out they had become indisputable actors on the political landscape, and if America couldn’t contact them, even covertly, we were losing a vital opportunity for influence and leverage.

In their calls for realism, they also cited a need to return to the lessons of history. The war on terror might have felt like a jarring dawn, a break from the stable past, but in fact America’s new wars and stateless enemies were part of a continuum.

Even before 9/11 and the Global War on Terror, Georgetown University political scientist Charles Kupchan had begun thinking about how peace breaks out. What causes adversaries to cease fighting? What prompts terrorist groups to join the governments they sought to overthrow? Kupchan’s casual inquiry led to years of research and a book published earlier this year, “How Enemies Become Friends.” Peace and stability, he found, required rapprochement between warring parties. And that in turn required the sides to talk to each other, even if it felt risky. Only in rare cases did enemies become allies after one smashed the other in combat, like the United States with Germany and Japan.

Analysts at the RAND Corporation, meanwhile, performed a sweeping analysis of 648 terrorist movements in the last four decades. They wanted to find out what had worked against a diverse array of groups — from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, to leftist European organizations like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, to a long list of now-forgotten factions in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Their landmark 2008 monograph showed that military force rarely brings about the end of a terrorist movement, succeeding only 10 percent of the time. RAND credited politics in 43 percent of cases and police work in 40 percent. Another RAND study reached similar results concerning insurgencies — it was politics, not military victory, that brought settlements.

But doesn’t the mere fact of talking betray weakness? In this decade, the signal good-news story for engagement hawks was the Iraqi Awakening, when secret diplomacy with Sunni extremist insurgents led tens of thousands of former fighters into an alliance with the United States against Al Qaeda. Many US military commanders in Iraq eventually came to the view that talking, paradoxically, enhanced our strength: America looked powerful when it persuaded former insurgents to join them — just as it looked adrift and feeble in Afghanistan during the middle of the last decade, when it ignored the Taliban until the Taliban came roaring back.

There’s almost universal agreement that a nihilist, ideological group like Al Qaeda holds almost no potential for reconciliation. We aren’t willing to accept a single one of Al Qaeda’s stated goals, and despite its ability to sow mayhem, Al Qaeda holds no imminent prospect of coalescing into a state-like movement with deep geographical roots, so there’s no starting point for negotiations. Other murderous movements in modern times have rejected dialogue and ultimately have fought until they were completely destroyed.

Historically, however, we’ve been slow to recognize the opportunities when enemies mature from fringe nihilists into quasi-governmental national movements. The United States hasn’t even considered changing Hezbollah’s designation as a terrorist organization, even though it has been more than a decade since its last suicide bombing and despite the fact that most of our European allies have established full diplomatic relations.

Pickering, the former US diplomat who is currently engaged in an unofficial effort to forge a regional peace agreement for Afghanistan, argues that there’s value in channels simply existing; adversaries obtain a more accurate sense of what the other side wants, even if contact doesn’t change their behavior.

Pickering’s relentless approach was evident in a secret meeting with Hamas and a coterie of Westerners in Zurich in the summer of 2009. Minutes of the meeting were leaked, and during hours of back and forth, Pickering continuously forced the Hamas leaders, including foreign minister Mahmoud Zahar (a notorious militant known for his monologues on the perfidy of Jews and Americans), toward specifics. Would Hamas renounce violence? Would it accept coexistence with a Jewish democratic state?

“What are your priorities? What do you expect from the international community?” Pickering asked. At another point, he outlined for Hamas leaders the West’s minimal expectations and added pointedly, “This might not be what you want.”

He wasn’t trying to convince or cajole as much as he was trying to focus his interlocutors’ minds on the possible. This is the real work: forcing our enemies to decide their priorities. What do they want most of all? What are they willing to give up? And as much as we want to avoid distasteful choices, it is our work as well. We can’t have everything we want. There are limits to our power.

America has discarded the nomenclature of the “Global War on Terror,” but we’re still embroiled in a deadly and colossally expensive conflict driven primarily by enemies we label terrorists. Muzzling their weapons is barely a first step in the battle that matters most. We want to reorient their politics and values. To do so, we must be strong; and we’ll have to get smarter at fighting at the negotiating table as well as in the hills and alleys.

Thanassis Cambanis is the author of ”A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at This is the first in a series of monthly columns he will be writing about new ideas in foreign policy.