Upon initial readings of literature in favour of talking to terrorists, several rather appealing elements stand out conceptually. There is the moral element: might does not make right. There is the humanitarian element: violence breeds grievances that breed further violence. There is precedence: the IRA model is an example of successful negotiations. There are even illogical comparisons: if we can talk with our archenemy India, why not with the Taliban.
While much has been written about why talks are necessary, the when, how, and with whom aspects of this process are equally important. As such, this article aims to highlight the literary discourses pertaining to negotiating with terrorists and how they provide a deeper understanding into a process that our leaders and policy makers are seeking to pursue. It will also be argued why certain case studies (i.e. IRA, LTTE) may not provide the best models in context with Pakistan’s strategies against the TTP.
Advantages of Negotiations
William Zartman, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Guy Olivier Faure, a French professor, co-wrote ‘Why Engage and Why Not?’ in the book Engaging Extremists where they argued the pros and cons of negotiating with terrorists. ‘Negotiation is the art of compromise’, they philosophised. The benefits of engaging terrorist organisations, through peace talks, are multiple. First, the negotiator is in a place to gain information about what the terrorist group is really demanding – the ‘back channels’ provide means of gathering intelligence on the group that is not necessarily revealed by media representatives. If the stronger negotiator acts creatively, it can even influence the decision of the other party. Negotiating is arguably the only viable alternative to violence and can successfully end the ‘terrorism’ aspect of a conflict.
Disadvantages of Negotiations
That said, Zartman is also one of the many academics critics who warn us about the challenges associated with this strategy. ‘Engagement is a risky choice for both sides, which explains the reluctance to engage’, he writes with Faure. ‘To begin with, engagement and negotiation carry with them the recognition of the terrorist organization (and, for the terrorists, the recognition of the state). Recognition confers a degree of legitimacy and status, and an implacable that the party speaks for the client population it claims to represent’.
For the state, it is crucial to engage only when some initial payment or guarantee has been received, otherwise there is an unavoidable likelihood of the state’s position weakening and terrorist’s strengthening once the latter’s position is recognised. It essentially means that a state is in a position to compromise its exclusive legitimacy. This can pose a risk for furtherance of violence if (a) the same group(s) decides to revert back to their terror tactics, and/or (b) negotiation encourages other militant organizations to resort to violent terror tactics under the impression that the state will eventually cave into their demands.
Hayes, Kaminsky and Beres of Evidence Based Research explain the concept of ‘absolute terrorism’, a new form of terrorism (or ‘new terrorism’ as Bruce Hoffman describes it) that is more complicated and dangerous than the traditional methods of terrorism. ‘These groups are characterised as absolutist because they are not willing to enter into a political discourse. Rather, their demands are immediate, unconditional, and universal’, similar to those of the TTP who have turned down the offer of political participation (or office), rejected the Constitution, and insisted upon the implementation of their version of Sharia across the country.
The differences between absolute terrorists and others lace the debate on discussion, making several academics including Alan Dershowitz (a professor of law at Harvard) maintain that negotiations are always a bad idea and should only be considered when terrorists are on the brink of defeat.
The Dilemmas of When, How, and with Whom
Peter Neumann, a professor at King’s College London, writes that ‘the first and most obvious question for any government considering negotiations is whether the terrorists it faces can make good negotiating partners’. Given the evolution of terrorism over the decades, this new ‘wave’ of religious terrorism in the twenty-first century means that the aims and ideologies of a terrorist organisation must be considered before determining to what extent it will compromise.
Academics differentiate between absolute terrorism as a tactic in which violence becomes a form of self-realisation, where the aims and objectives are nihilistic or millennialist, and traditional terrorism where violence is utilised for political or economic aspirations. For absolute terrorism, they maintain that negotiations must take place when terrorists are on the verge of giving up.
However, warns Neumann, even when terrorists seem to be losing, governments must tread carefully. Referring to a peace process in Colombia with FARC in the late 1990s, he reminds us that states overeager to begin negotiations could lose out terribly. In 1998, as part of an initial peace process, the Colombian government agreed to provide FARC with a demilitarised zone where its militants could operate freely without hindrances from security forces, before the group gave any guarantees of discontinuing violence. FARC grabbed the opportunity to go on an outright offensive, abusing the indirect legitimacy that had been provided to it by Bogota. The military was eventually ordered to move in and reoccupy the territory.
However, academics still do not classify FARC as absolute terrorists. So far, al Qaeda and its affiliates have been the only groups to fall under the category of absolute terrorism. The table below breaks down the three classifications to include the TTP.
|Absolute Terrorists||Conditional Absolute Terrorists||Contingent Terrorists|
|The use of terror tactics is an end in itself, and their sole objective is to create destruction and violence so as to achieve a particular political aim. According to Zartman, it is impossible to negotiate with absolute terrorists but negotiations can be used to influence the group or members within the group. Religious terrorism (or what Rapoport calls the ‘fourth wave of terrorism’) could fall into this category. In this category, terrorists can consider themselves as purifiers, seeking to rid a populace of apostate rulers and non-believers that may be tainting their belief systems.
(e.g. Al Qaeda and its affiliates, TTP)
|They use terror tactics (suicide attacks, guerrilla warfare, etc.) but are open to negotiations because they usually have something to negotiate about, such as territorial independence or self-determination (also referred to as nationalist terrorism, or – to be more politically correct – insurgencies). These groups are difficult to engage, but not unengageable.
(e.g. LTTE, IRA, FARC, PLO)
|They use terror tactics are a means to achieve other goals; violence is contingent on their demands being met and ends with negotiations and fulfilment of their demands.
(e.g. kidnappers, hostage takers, rebels and/or revolutionaries)
Comparative ‘Models’ and Case Studies
In the present scenario in Pakistan, the TTP seems to be laying down the conditions. One spokesman went on record to say that if the government ceasefires first, then the TTP would follow suit. They have not agreed to any demands made by the state but constantly projected their own; they thanked Imran Khan for his proposal that the TTP should open a political office, but maintained they have no such desire to do so; they want their men to be released, while not promising any rejection of violence on their behalf. Instead, Ehsanullah Ehsan recently released a statement that because four TTP members had been killed in Karachi, the option of cease-fire with the apostate government of Pakistan was now off the table.
Ehsan’s statement was released the same day Imran Khan’s article was published in The News in which he referred to the international history of negotiating with terrorists, namely LTTE, IRA, Viet Cong, and now the Afghan Taliban. Let’s briefly consider each case study.
The IRA Model
Northern Ireland faced one of the longest-running conflicts in modern history. Its so-called ‘success’ of peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreements between Britain and Sinn Fein (IRA’s political wing), became an ideal model for conflict resolution around the world – especially ethnic conflicts. Eamonn O’Kane, while examining the uses and abuses of the Irish ‘model’, explained how in the context of IRA, ending violence was ‘a clear and consistently applied precondition’ for Britain.
Spector explained further. ‘In the British-Sinn Fein case, negotiation was not a decision initiated by the government. It was a consequence of certain conditions being met by the villain…. The IRA-Sinn Fein, in fact, was forced to change its ways and tactics – to appear not to be a villain anymore in a very public manner – before the government was willing to accede to direct negotiations. Thus the villain need to ‘devillainise’ itself. Once that reversal occurred, the British government was shielded from the accusation of appeasement and agreed to negotiations’.
If the IRA model is to be applied to Pakistan in any case, it should be done with the right interpretation, and with the realisation that a democratic government, with strong institutions, should not be led into a position where it should be bargaining its authority.
The LTTE Model
The downfall of the Tamil Tigers is another misunderstood model that Pakistani analysts love mentioning. It was not peace talks that brought down the LTTE. Rather, the LTTE used peace time to regroup and strengthen itself. Essentially, they used ceasefire agreements to buy time for more violence.
Before LTTE’s collapse, Dr Ravni Thakur, a professor at Delhi University, stated, ‘For [India], the LTTE is and will remain a terrorist organisation, and the Indian civil society will not help or create a situation which might allow the LTTE to take advantage. Absolutely not. We do not talk to the LTTE’. She added that talks with the LTTE would require the precondition of LTTE renouncing violence.
What the LTTE model does provide the world is an extremely bitter example. The LTTE did not lose to the Sinhalese government due to negotiations. There was a political will to eliminate the LTTE and its leadership; new military plans were devised to defeat the group militarily; defence budgets were allocated to ensure that only the best equipment was used in routing out the tigers. Additionally, the Sri Lankan army trained itself in the one tactic the Tigers had championed: guerrilla warfare.
Was it effective? Yes. Was it clean? No. Thousands of innocent lives were lost in the process. Human shields and child soldiers were notoriously utilised by both sides. The Tigers were eventually side-lined on the international front, with aid and support filtering in for the Sinhalese government. Tamil history was forever tainted. What started as a separatist insurgency (contingent terrorism) soon evolved into an outright terrorist organisation (conditional absolute terrorism) that violated ceasefire agreements on countless occasions only to finally admit defeat in 2009.
The Viet Cong Comparison
Another bad comparison. US peace talks with the Viet Cong came at a time when the former realised it was fighting a losing war. Seventy per cent of people killed in the Vietnam War were civilians. Public support was diminishing by the day. The US was at the brink of an embarrassing exit when they proposed negotiations. It was, at best, a face-saving measure.
The Afghan Taliban Model
Interestingly, Khan again referred to his least favourite nation in the world by way of comparison. Negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan is something the US needs (refer to Viet Cong model). Twelve years of battling and droning it out in Afghanistan has left them with little other options. Dialogue, at this point, is a proposition made by a state that wants to pull out at all costs and leave behind a grand gesture of an idea that they brought ‘peace’ in battle-ridden country.
Pakistan will need to take a multi-pronged approach, all the while maintaining its democratic principles. It must be the deciding party that lays down its demands and accepts nothing short of a complete rejection of violence from the TTP. This rejection of violence must be tested for a period of time while talks take place to ensure that the TTP knows its place as the weaker adversary, is willing to accept the state’s terms and conditions, and only then must be allowed to put forth its requests. But to get to that place, Pakistan must understand TTP as the weaker adversary and the enemy, not a party it can bargain with; it first needs to bring the terrorists groups responsible for violence in a place that leaves them with no option but to negotiate and abide by the options that the state choses to provide them with. Until then, the TTP & co. are likely to continue their terror tactics and continue being the absolute terrorist group that it is, the group that Pakistan must, in all circumstances, take out from the root.
Zoha Waseem is from Karachi and has a post-graduate from King’s College London in Terrorism, Security and Society.
There are always fundamental mistakes in all the writings from pro-war section of our society. For instance, war in Pakistan is part of WOT…and that’s a fact and it is missed by writings from our liberals. This can easily be judged by the fact that Pakistan has witnessed more than 200 suicide attacks from 2001 to 2013 and there had not been hardly 5 attacks from 1947-2001. And moreover, the fact people that drone attacks and military operations did ignite the issue and there were more attacks after 2004. These are the facts which shall be part of debate whenever we discuss Taliban driven terrorism. What has been the most damaging impact of this war is suicide attacks and to tackle suicide attacks you just need to reverse things and make them look the way they were before 2001. That’s the solution which Pakistan can achieve as liberals can not defeat the ones with beard in Pakistan.
Hello, Tahir. Thanks for your response. I agree that the GWOT is very much our war and you raise good points about suicide terrorism in Pakistan. Perhaps I can tackle that in another article some time, but for now I think reversing the effects of Taliban-driven terrorism from Pakistan and eradicating suicide terrorism essentially means changing mindsets and perceptions. The only way a terrorist group can successfully stop its use of suicide attacks is if/when it becomes an unpopular or unsuccessful mode of attack. For the moment, such attacks are successful in triggering fear (and thus, resentment towards the state which looks like its failing to do its job of protecting citizens), in killing people, in attracting media attention, in creating drama (which is essentially what terrorism is). It’s difficult to say how Pakistan can make suicide terrorism look like an unpopular tactic for terrorists, that would require a multi-dimensional approach. Anyway, I would say it’s important to look back even before 2001. South Asia’s history post-British era tells us that essentially Pakistan was meant to have tense relations with Afghanistan (after the drawing up of the Durand line and the divisions of Pashtun areas). Unfortunately, our leaders did nothing to worsen these tense relations and in fact made some very bad decisions for vested interests. It will take us a long time to find our way back, and out of this mess..
I meant our leaders did nothing to stop these relations (Afghanistan-Pakistan) from worsening.
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