The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Monday, 9 August 2010

Talking to the enemy

Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, has featured on this blog on more than one occasion, each time on the subject of conflict resolution - more specifically its methodology (if such a thing exists) and the importance of talking to the enemy.

This week he is to be found arguing - not for the first time - in favour of dialogue with the Taliban and al Qaida.

It is hard to object with much of Powell says here, above all because his argument is based on his long-standing personal experience in Northern Ireland, contacts with mediators in other late 20th century conflict zones and a pragmatic look at history.
"There seems to be a pattern to the west's behaviour when we face terrorist campaigns. First we fight them militarily, then we talk to them, and eventually we treat them as statesmen. That is what Britain did with Menachem Begin and the Irgun in Israel, with Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau in Kenya and with Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus."
While there are many differences between these three cases alone, there is one common thread that runs through them and countless other 'terrorist' groups - it was once heresy to even suggest talking to these people but talk to them we (eventually) did.

I would hope that's a given for any serious student of history but for anyone who argues that it is morally reprehensible to talk to the likes of the Taliban and al Qaida, I would simply answer that we (the west) have talked and in fact actively supported worse characters than them in most parts of the world.

I don't therefore have any problems with Jonathan Powell's argument on moral grounds. My question is this - is it practical?

One could argue that talking to extremists is more than just practical, it is necessary. For example, as Powell realised in Northern Ireland, only extremes can build a lasting peace because there will be nobody left to outflank them. The British and Irish governments original intention was to build peace from the centre (ie. the moderate nationalist and unionist parties) and, while this was enough to reach a settlement, it was not enough to implement it. Only the extremes could do that.

That was the case in Northern Ireland but that lesson is not easily applicable to other situations, such as Afghanistan. We are obliged to keep in mind the basic question - is it practical? - and it is here that we must raise doubts on the notion of talking to the Taliban.

On a previous occasion (in 2008), Powell stated that:
"It's very difficult for democratic governments to do - talk to a terrorist movement that's killing your people," he said. "[But] if I was in government now I would want to have been talking to Hamas, I would be wanting to communicate with the Taliban; and I would want to find a channel to al-Qaida."
This is where I have a problem. Powell gives three examples of organisations which bear almost no resemblance to each other whatsoever. Say what you like about Hamas but they have a hierarchy, clear political objectives and unity of effort within the ranks. On that basis, you have some kind of starting point for negotiation.

Al Qaida, on the other hand, has none of those elements. Who would we talk to? What would we talk about? Even if we could find a credible interlocutor from among their ranks, there is no way he could win over the multitude of disparate al Qaida - or 'al Qaida inspired' - cells strung out across the world and bring them into a process of negotiation. Talking to al Qaida is simply a non-starter and I am amazed that Powell would compare them to Hamas.

The case of the Taliban is more complex and, of course, very topical. Much of what I have just said about al Qaida applies to them also. Who would we talk to? The most obvious answer here is Mullah Omar and/or the Quetta Shura but would they carry the entire movement with them?

The apparent generational divide within the new Taliban has featured on this blog before. As far as I can tell, amid all the ongoing talk of reconciliation and reintegration, nobody has thought to ask if we are dealing with one organisation or several, or if we are dealing with a leadership that truly controls its rank-and-file.

Even if they do - and that is a big 'if' - does Mullah Omar, who presumably has spent much of the past nine years in hiding, have a clear understanding of the domestic politics within Afghanistan and of the regional and global dimensions to this conflict? In my recent post on the alleged talks between Ankara and the Kurdish Workers' Party, I raised similar concerns about Abdullah Ocalan. To be credible, an interlocutor has to understand his own movement and the environment in which it resides.

Next question - what do we talk about? Do the Taliban have negotiable aims that the whole movement agrees on? On this issue, Powell raises some very pertinent issues:
"For the IRA, as long as the objective was "troops out", little discussion was needed. The same is true in Afghanistan. The Taliban will need to move beyond the single demand that foreign forces must leave first, and consider what they really want to achieve. What changes do they want in the Afghan constitution? What sort of power sharing should there be between the Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other minorities? How would they demonstrate that they had separated themselves from al-Qaida? What attitude would they take to women's rights and girls' education? They probably haven't thought these questions through themselves, but opening a channel would help them to start elaborating answers. And experience from other conflicts suggests this can take a long time."
All good points but I would add to them by saying that the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara and other minorities must be consulted and their fears must be allayed. That is paramount, assuming that it is even possible. Memories of inter-ethnic massacres during the 1990s civil war - notably in Mazar-e-Sharif between the Taliban and the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras - will not have been forgotten.

The fact that very few people have asked these questions must raise some concerns about the increasing chatter on reconciliation. Reintegration is different and, although still problematic, it does seem to have been more thought out than reconciliation. Until the Afghan government and the international community have asked hard questions about the very notion of talking to - and ultimately reconciling with - the Taliban, then we could perhaps be forgiven for thinking this smacks of a smokescreen as we start edging towards the exit door in Afghanistan.

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