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Why Jonathan Powell thinks we'll have to negotiate with al-Qa’eda

A review of Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, by Jonathan Powell. He makes much of Blair’s success in Northern Ireland – but not all disputes are so soluble

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts Jonathan Powell

The Bodley Head, pp.407, £20

Jonathan Powell is best known as Tony Blair’s fixer. He was intimately involved with the Northern Ireland peace process, about which he has written authoritatively, and since leaving office has set up his own NGO which advises on negotiations with terrorists worldwide. This book, subtitled ‘How to End Armed Conflicts’, is offered as a guide to negotiators.

They should find it very useful, packed with quotes and anecdotes from negotiations with, amongst others, the Tamils, ETA, the IRA, the ANC, Columbia’s FARC and, of course, that hardiest of all perennials, Israel-Palestine. It is liberally sprinkled with good advice and wise observations — that terrorist groups often start with unrealisable demands but change their aims over time, that in negotiations process begets progress and, most fundamentally, that if a political issue lies at the root of the conflict, and if the armed group enjoys significant political support, then there will in the end have to be a political solution and that will involve talking.

Powell stresses the need to take risks in starting negotiations (well illustrated by his own early contacts with the IRA), the importance of the personal in establishing trust, how the hardest negotiations are often with your own side, and the need to establish, face to face, absolute dependability — never promising what you can’t deliver. He quotes that supreme negotiator Henry Kissinger on denying your negotiating team any knowledge of a formulated Plan B in the event of failure, since if they know it they will nearly always tack in that direction from the start.

All this is good, but it is underpinned by some wobbly assumptions. Predominantly, Powell asserts that we (governments) always end up talking to terrorists, no matter how often we say we won’t. Up to a point: it’s been calculated that only about a fifth of terrorist groups negotiate strategically with governments and, when they do, it generally benefits the government. Powell makes much of the fact that British governments talked intermittently to the IRA over many years while denying that they did so. But he doesn’t sufficiently allow for the fact that in disputes over sovereignty or territory there is always something to talk about.

These are the — relatively — easy cases which he probably has in mind when he asserts that there is no such thing as an insoluble conflict. However, if a group is motivated by religious, class or caste hatred, or a simple desire for conquest, there’s really nothing to talk about. Which demands of the Red Brigades in Italy or the Bader Meinhoff group in Germany could conceivably have been met in negotiation?

Powell believes that al-Qa’eda is a group we shall eventually have to negotiate with (his book was written before the advent of the so-called Islamic State), treating it almost as a rival state with claims on us. But it doesn’t exist in that sense at all. It is more an insurrectionist social movement whose stated aims have varied over time and which survives only in ungoverned spaces as a rallying point for the gullible and embittered in search of an identity and cause; there’s nothing to negotiate about.

Nor are territorial disputes always soluble. Given the attitudes of their respective populations and of peoples around them, it is hard to see how the Israel-Palestine problem can be solved in our lifetime. It can be contained, perhaps, but not resolved until the conditions that gave rise to it have themselves changed or become irrelevant.

Powell stresses that factors other than negotiation incline groups to make peace, but — understandably, perhaps — doesn’t always give them sufficient weight. Negotiations with the IRA wouldn’t have worked had the IRA not suffered dwindling political support, internal decay, problems of generational transfer, penetration by MI5 and increasing security pressure north and south of the border. Its cause was crumbling and its campaign had lost momentum; in the eyes of Powell’s political opponents, negotiations rescued it and gave it a political role it would never have achieved.

It is hard, too, to accept Powell’s contention that there is no moral or tactical difference between negotiating with a group that kills one or a group that kills thousands. Negotiations matter, of course, but they’re not always the answer and not always necessary — most terrorist groups collapse in less than a decade, without negotiations and without achieving their aims. It should also be acknowledged that ruthless and determined states generally win — witness the Russian suppression of Chechyna.

All that said, it’s hard to argue with Powell’s contention that terrorism is here to stay: developments in explosives and weaponry, improvements in travel and communication have greatly empowered the individual and armed the disaffected. His book is a useful compendium for anyone involved in the subject but it’s perhaps best read in conjunction with Audrey Cronin’s more analytical and deeply researched How Terrorism Ends, a book Powell draws on without addressing its challenge to some of his assumptions.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.50 Tel: 08430 600033

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