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Friday, July 24, 2015

A Long-Standing Lie: The U.S. Does Not Negotiate With Terrorists

"In May 2014, after lengthy negotiations, the U.S. government secured the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo. Instead of celebration, his release led to stinging attacks by Republican lawmakers who claimed President Obama had abandoned the decades-old U.S. policy that 'we don’t negotiate with terrorists.'

"The charge, however, was completely ahistorical. While it is true the public position of the United States had long been that it would never deal with terrorists, previous presidents, including Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush, all Republicans, had in fact negotiated with terrorists."

(Jonathan Powell. "We must negotiate with terrorists: The dirty secret our government does not want to admit." Salon. Excerpted from Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating Is the Only Way to Peace."
July 12, 2015.)

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff for thirteen and a half years and the chief British negotiator on Northern Ireland dealing with the IRA, says governments in all countries and of all political parties say they will never talk to terrorists. But they almost always end up doing so. Just consider history.

For example, Powell cites that during the decades of decolonization, the British government called Menachem Begin a terrorist after he blew up the King David Hotel, killing 91 people, but later lauded him as statesman. They locked up Jomo Kenyatta as a terrorist but later released him to negotiate Kenyan independence. And they exiled Archbishop Makarios to the Seychelles as a terrorist but released him to become the first elected leader of an independent Cyprus.

During the Iraq War, the Bush administration cut deals with Sunni insurgents in Iraq’s Anbar province -- working with and even paying people who had been killing American soldiers.

Also, President George W. Bush made his position on negotiating with terrorists crystal clear. On April 4, 2002, he said, “No nation can negotiate with terrorists. For there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death.” Bush said that the United States would work for the return of kidnapped American military personnel and civilians, but will not pay any ransom: “We, of course, don’t pay ransom for any hostages,” he stated firmly.

But, Micheal Crowley of Time reports ...

"In fact, a month earlier in March 2002, the Bush White House had helped arrange a ransom payment to the radical Islamic group Abu Sayyaf. ABC News reported that the U.S. government helped pay $300,000 in cash to the group, known to be part of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. The ransom was arranged to secure the release of two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, taken hostage at a resort in the Philippines on May 27, 2001. The Burnhams were Protestant missionaries who traveled widely handing out Bibles and spreading the gospel. The ransom was paid, but the hostages were not released; one was later killed."

(Michael Crowley. "Obama Didn’t Negotiate With ‘Terrorists’ for Bergdahl."
Time. June 02, 2014.)

Probably the best known negotiations with terrorists was the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration sold missiles to Tehran to secure the partial release of American hostages held in Lebanon.

Even Israel, in 1993, secretly negotiated the Oslo accords even though the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) continued its terrorist campaign and refused to recognize Israel's right to exist. And in 1985, Israel released seven hundred prisoners with American approval for the freedom of Americans held hostage on the hijacked Trans World Airlines Flight 847.

(Simon Engler. "The U.S. Does Negotiate With Terrorists." June 03, 2014.)

In the words of British Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell, “All terrorists, at the invitation of the government, end up with drinks in the Dorchester.”

Despite the fact Jonathan Powell has not always been in favor of talking to terrorists (His father had been hit by an IRA bullet in an ambush in 1940, and his eldest brother was on an IRA death list for eight years while he worked for Margaret Thatcher.), when Powell left government in 2007, he argued, on the basis of his experience talking to Irish terrorists, that the country should be prepared to talk to Hamas, to the Taliban, and even to al-Qaeda.  He believes it is unsound policy to find it acceptable to talk to the IRA and the PLO but not to these new groups.

Now, the United States has negotiated a cease-fire in Gaza with Hamas and the release of Sergeant Bergdahl with the Taliban. Even al-Qaeda appears not to be beyond the realm of negotiations. According to Powell, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, proposed in a speech in 2011 that Western governments should talk to the group.

We presently face a new, extremely violent, terrorist group, ISIL. It is unlikely we can destroy them by bombing alone. So, do we put massive numbers of "boots on the ground" in an effort to end their atrocities? And, what is the probability that invasion will end the conflict and prevent other terrorist groups from arising?

Let's be reasonable and think about the outcome of such policies during the last thirty to fifty years.

Powell speculates that "if we wish to end the conflict rather than just contain it, we must talk to ISIL, or whatever Islamist extremist organization succeeds it, just as we have with all the previous terrorist groups we have encountered."

(Jonathan Powell. "We must negotiate with terrorists: The dirty secret our government
does not want to admit." Salon. July 12, 2015.)

Oh, yes, we hate the extreme terrorism carried out by ISIL, and we are terrified of such groups already threatening citizens within our borders. Yet, in the past we have talked with such horrific factions. It is something new to dismiss the very idea of talking.

And, yes, it is hypocrisy for governments to claim they don't talk with terrorists; however, the history of such actions cannot be swept under the political carpet and forgotten. Jonathan Powell says ...

"When governments do eventually engage with terrorists, they almost always leave it far too late. General David Petraeus admits that in Iraq, the U.S. government delayed too long before talking to those 'with American blood on their hands.'

"In the case of the Taliban, in part because of the focus on preconditions like the release of Bergdahl, a sustained peace process has still not begun even though NATO forces have already started leaving Afghanistan. The process of engaging with these groups and winning their trust takes a lot longer than people realize. They need time to adjust to the outside world and grasp what might be a realistic demand and what is not.

"When we do eventually engage, we forget the techniques and skills we learned last time. Terje Roed-Larsen, the Norwegian facilitator of the Israeli–Palestinian talks in Oslo, says, 'What is truly shocking to me is that it seems as if every new set of negotiators . . . [is] trying to reinvent the wheel once again as they make exactly the same mistakes.' Even if individual governments do not stay in power long enough to learn these lessons, surely we can do so collectively."

(Jonathan Powell. "We must negotiate with terrorists: The dirty secret our government
does not want to admit." Salon. July 12, 2015.)

Powell's experience over the last seventeen years has led him to believe that "shared risks that helped establish a relationship of trust where progress could be made." He says, "If people are going to make mistakes negotiating with terrorists, they should at least make their own, new, mistakes rather than repeating those already made by others." It is brutally clear that each new terrorist threat is unique in its operation.

Limited research has confirmed success with terrorist negotiations. Researchers from the University of Denver and the University of Maryland studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict between 1987 and 2004 and found that Israeli humanitarian policies that raised the standard of living in Palestine resulted in fewer terrorist attacks from groups, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas, in the ensuing months than offensive measures such as bulldozing suspected terrorists' homes and establishing curfews.

Erica Chenoweth, co-author of the study, says ...

"A lot of research has tried to dispel the idea that terrorists are mentally defective or have an unpredictable value system. They're generally trying to achieve a specific political aim … they're using a terribly flawed method to achieve that aim, but they've come to the calculation that using terrorism is the best way to pursue their political goals."

By incentivizing peace rather than punishing violence, Chenoweth believes terror attacks can be reduced.

(Jason Koebler. "Why Governments Should Negotiate With Terrorists.
U.S. News. July 31, 2012.)

Perhaps the most pertinent question posed may be, "Is the present, aggressive U.S. 'War on Terror' making America any safer?" I, like many others, am very skeptical that all armed aggression is having the effect of improving the safety of our citizens.

Critics of negotiating with terrorists assert that any talks will be music to the ears of the Islamic State’s terrorist leaders. They say negotiating with these groups provides them with legitimacy, which the groups' leaders have been eager to secure. Yet, we must consider the problems are often a question of religious radicalism versus nationalism. Some leaders of foreign nations are open to dialogue and compromise as a means of reducing terrorism in their own countries.

The argument against negotiating with terrorists is simple: Democracies must never give in to violence, and terrorists must never be rewarded for using it. Where is this upheld? Not in the U.S.

People can claim the United States does not negotiate with terrorists, but those who take time to research will find to find this political maxim is false. It is a lofty ideal, and pretty much nothing more. We tend to believe that claim because we rightfully hate terrorists and all acts of terrorism, and we tend to employ all our heated emotions to that steadfast loathing. There is nothing to respect about those who defy human rights and use unspeakable violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

However ...

Negotiating with terrorists has been the de facto policy in America and around the world for decades.

Peter R. Neumann, Director of the Center for Defense Studies at King's College, London, believes the key objective for any government contemplating negotiations with terrorists is not simply to end violence but to do so in a way that minimizes the risk of setting dangerous precedents and destabilizing its political system.

Neumann cites Bruce Hoffman, of Georgetown University; William Zartman, of Johns Hopkins University; and other experts who believe that terrorists' stated aims and ideology should be the decisive factor in determining whether they might be willing to compromise. Hence, these experts draw a distinction between nihilistic terrorists, who have "absolute" or even "apocalyptic" goals (often religiously inspired) and for whom violence has become a perverted form of self-realization, and more "traditional" terrorists, who are believed to be "instrumental" or "political" in their aspirations and so have the potential to become constructive interlocutors.

Neumann says sometimes this distinction between supposedly rational terrorists and irrational ones is often in the eye of the beholder.

(Peter R. Neumann. "Negotiating With Terrorists."
January-February, 2007.)

Yet, perhaps the most persuading argument for negotiating with terrorists involves U.S. armed forces involvement in war and their capture. Please allow me to let Neumann explain in this case ...

"But how can this rule apply when warfare involves an enemy who does not wear the uniform of a warring nation and are avowed terrorists?

"Our war in Afghanistan is not one being waged against the Afghan government. As a result, the enemy involves those we deem to be terrorists who do not wear the uniform of any nation—only the uniform of an unofficial band bent on America’s destruction along with their more immediate goal of dominating Afghan society.

"Things were not much different in Iraq where, once Saddam Hussein was deposed, our war became a fight with various terrorist factions rather than the Iraqi government.

"Consider the absurdity of the Iraq situation when attempting to apply the principle of no negotiation with terrorists.

"If we are to follow the principle, a member of our military captured by the Saddam’s Republican Guard on the day before Saddam was sent packing would be entitled— and expect—that the full effort of the US government would be put to use to bring that solider home.

"However, a soldier captured while engaged one month later in a battle with al-Qaeda in Iraq could expect to be left to rot.


"Because we don’t negotiate with terrorists.

"Does this make any sense to anyone—particularly those whom we depend upon to volunteer his or her service to our nation by signing up for military duty?

"Those courageous enough to risk their lives to fight the wars their country asks them to fight do so with the knowledge that they are laying their life on the line. But how would they feel about enlisting were they know that should they be sent into battle with terrorists rather than a uniformed military enemy, their country would not be working to bring them home?

"When we are talking about civilians, it is a different situation. If a civilian contractor heads to Afghanistan because he or she is being paid big bucks to work in a war zone, it is on them if they fail to purchase the security necessary to keep them safe or fail to conduct themselves in a manner designed to avoid capture.

"Our military does not have that luxury.

"So, let’s make an adjustment.

"Let’s change the axiom to reflect an understanding that any member of the military captured during a time of war by anyone on foreign soil is, in fact, the victim of an act of war thereby making that individual a prisoner of war—not a hostage—who is entitled to the full efforts of the United States government to free them and bring them home."

(Peter R. Neumann. "Negotiating With Terrorists."
January-February, 2007.)

This is all food for thought and a firm recognition of something we often claim falsely: "The United States does not negotiate with terrorists." It has done so throughout its history. It is doing so now. And, like it or not, it will likely continue to do so in the future. Let's hope that talks and negotiations lead to better understandings between factions and eventually, to world peace. And, above all, let's hope that these dealings save American lives.

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