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Does Jonathan Powell really want to negotiate with the Islamic State?

Or does he just want more people talking about Jonathan Powell?

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

I think I’ve finally worked out the time-honoured Jonathan Powell formula for promoting a new book: take which-ever group constitutes the most bloodthirsty terrorist organisation of the day — in this case IS, the warped Islamist force currently enslaving and beheading its way across Iraq and Syria — and create a media fizz by boldly declaring that sooner or later we’re going to have to negotiate with them.

Powell’s predicted circumstances in which the ‘talking’ to IS should actually happen, however, are hedged with unrealised conditions. At other moments he will daringly hint that talking is best without any preconditions at all. During the Northern Ireland peace process, one of the approaches beloved by the British government was that of ‘creative ambiguity’, in which mutually contradictory positions could be held simultaneously. In Mr Powell it appears to have become a habit.

Following his argument is a bit like riding a rodeo bull: you can only hang in there for so long. In a recent Guardian article, headlined ‘How to talk to terrorists’, he noted that: ‘We usually delay talking to armed groups too long, and as a result a large number of people die unnecessarily.’ (So talk sooner?) Yet at the same time, on IS, ‘We need to work out a longer-term strategy for dealing with whatever threat they pose, rather than opting once again for a kneejerk response to satisfy opinion polls. That strategy will certainly include security measures: if the terrorists feel they have a chance of winning, they will just carry on fighting.’ (So hit hard, talk later?) But then again: ‘If people sit around waiting for a conflict to be ripe for talks to start, or for the forces of history to solve it for them, then it will never be resolved.’ (So talk any time — and fetch me a couple of paracetamol, will you?)

The one solid thing we can reliably do, it seems, is to ‘learn from the experience of others’ and call in the expertise in this field of Jonathan Powell, who is now chief executive of the charity Inter Mediate, which works on armed conflicts.

I am not saying that Powell’s negotiating experience should be discounted, just that he writes terrorism a very broad and variable prescription with an uncomfortably flashy pen. For if we don’t want IS now to feel as if it has a ‘chance of winning’ — and I presume we don’t, since it has gloatingly festooned itself in atrocities and is on the march near Baghdad and Kobane — then perhaps it might be a good idea not to go around sagely predicting through every possible news outlet that one day we will be compelled to negotiate with it?


I must confess to a bit of ‘previous’ with Powell. I was tootling around the internet recently when I bumped into a long complaint he had written about me in 2011, on an interesting paid-for website called ICorrect which bills itself as ‘the universal website for corrections to lies, misinformation and misrepresentation’.

I had written an article for this magazine in 2010 in which I said that I was weary of Powell’s picturesque anecdotes about joshing with Gerry Adams in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement, and observed that the Northern Ireland deal — given the bargains struck with IRA and loyalist paramilitaries — was not an ‘unalloyed triumph’. While we might have to live with that, I said, it would be preferable not to romanticise it. I also suggested that Powell’s then much-publicised policy of talking to the Taleban — particularly given its stance on women’s rights — was unlikely to afford much long-term solace for liberal-minded locals.

ICorrect, set up by the Hong Kong businessman Sir David Tang, offers celebrity clients the chance to ‘set the record straight’ on unjust accusations on a website that ‘protects one’s reputation in cyberspace for ever’. The fee for individuals is US$1,000 per annum. In the site’s ‘accusation’ section, Mr Powell penned his own summary of my original article without using a single direct quotation. Then he argued against his own loose summary.

Among other things, he accused me of mixing up the Afghan and the Pakistani Taleban, or TTP — because I had referenced the latter’s campaign in the Swat valley — saying: ‘Swat is in Pakistan and you can draw no inferences whatsoever from what the TTP did there for what the Afghan Taleban might or not do.’

Yet while the Afghan and the complex Pakistani Taleban are indeed separate organisations, in 2010 Swat was already a blurrier case. A sermonising Swat Taleban militant called Maulana Fazlullah — who had previously seized control of Swat — had been driven out by Pakistani security forces, was across the border in Afghanistan, and was even then politically close to Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taleban leader.

Last year Fazlullah became head of the Pakistani Taleban, a promotion reportedly backed by Mullah Omar himself, and enthusiastically reiterated his fealty to his Afghan supporter.

Nothing about this suggests that on the treatment of women — the topic under discussion in my original piece — there was a material difference between the positions of the Swat and Afghan Taleban in 2010. Even the recent inching of some Afghan Taleban towards a segregated, heavily religious education for girls — instead of none at all — has included a corresponding shift by the government away from the wider protection of women’s rights: compromises with fanaticism can have their own steep civic cost.

Of course states must be alert to the mutations of terrorist groups, and cultivate potentially useful information and contacts even in unappetising places: few would argue otherwise. But IS is a very different organisation from the IRA of the 1990s, with radically dissimilar aims and ideology, and the cost to the West of appearing readily malleable could be high.

Mr Powell is currently our special envoy to Libya, and I wish him more success there than his former boss Tony Blair has enjoyed as peace envoy to the Middle East. But I don’t buy into his chosen status as the international deal-whisperer to terrorists.


Iraq-and-Syria-debate-coffee house imageThe Spectator is holding a debate ‘Iraq and Syria are lost causes: intervention can’t help’ at 7pm on Wednesday 22 October at Church House, SW1. Speakers for the motion will include John Redwood and Patrick Cockburn, and against, Douglas Murray, Ed Husain and General The Lord Dannatt. Chairing the debate will be Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.


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