Foreign Policy Magazine: Essential Lessons of Terrorists at the Table

By David Sterman

OCTOBER, 2015,

This summer, hopes for a negotiated solution to the Afghan War rose only to be dashed. Pakistan’s foreign ministry initially called the negotiations with the Taliban a “breakthrough.” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called the negotiations “the only way” to end the conflict. Even Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader, seemed to make comments suggesting his support. Then the Taliban confirmed that Mullah Omar was actually dead and the process ground to a halt amidst disputes within the Taliban leadership.

With the Afghan War’s cost totaling more than $1 trillion by some counts, and having taken the lives of more than 2,000 American service members in addition to those serving with other members of the international coalition and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, the need for introspection regarding how the war came to be so costly is clear. The possibility of ending the bloodshed through negotiation deserves close attention.

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In Terrorists at the Table, Jonathan Powell, the former chief negotiator for the Northern Ireland peace process and chief of staff to then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, argues that the war’s costliness derived in large part from an aversion to negotiating with terrorists.

Powell begins his book by recounting the “stinging attacks by Republican lawmakers who claimed President Obama had abandoned the decades-old US policy ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’” in May 2014, when Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban after being captured in 2009, was released in exchange for five Taliban prisoners being held at a military prison in Guantánamo Bay.

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Powell sees the attacks surrounding the incident as the product of a widespread aversion to negotiating with terrorists. As he notes: “Governments in all countries and of all political parties say they will never talk to terrorists.” In a whirlwind review of the history of such sentiment, Powell takes the reader from Teddy Roosevelt’s call for a crusade to eliminate terrorism after the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley to Ronald Reagan’s 1985 statement that “America will never make concessions to terrorists.”

The aversion was felt particularly strongly at the beginning of the Afghan War. Powell writes: “In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush said, ‘no nation can negotiate with terrorists, for there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death.’ His vice president, Dick Cheney, put it more pithily, saying ‘We don’t negotiate with evil we defeat it.’”

In that early moment, the decision not to negotiate set the stage for the immense costs that would come over the next decade-plus. Powell writes: “The problem for the West is that we have left engaging with the Taliban terribly late — in retrospect, it was a mistake to have excluded them from the original Bonn talks on the future of the country in 2001-02.” He quotes Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, on the point, as saying, “back in 2002, the Taliban were on the run. I think that at that stage, if we had been prescient, we might have spotted that a final political solution to what we started in 2001, from our perspective, would have involved getting all Afghans to sit at the table and talk about their future.”

Some analysts and practitioners have put forward an alternative explanation for how the Afghan War became so costly — blaming the failure to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy early enough and see it through. Daniel Green, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, points the finger at that failure writing that there was a “faith that the U.S. military and its civilian and uniformed leadership were committed to victory and that they would do all that was required to ensure the American homeland was protected” but instead that faith was betrayed and “hundreds of men and women frequently died implementing a strategy that was often flawed at best, lacked the right resources to prevail, and that embraced concepts of war ill-suited for the Afghan context.”

In his memoir Knife Fights, Lt. Col. (ret.) John Nagl, who helped lay the groundwork for today’s counterinsurgency doctrine, puts forward a similar explanation focused on the failure to implement and follow through on a counterinsurgency strategy. Nagl writes that Gen. David Petraeus “had the chance to practice counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, which had been starved of resources for many years by the overwhelming demands of the debacle in Iraq. Counterinsurgency worked where it was resourced, particularly in southern Afghanistan.”

Nagl rejects the analysis that lies behind Powell’s attribution of the Afghan War’s costliness to the refusal to include and negotiate with the Taliban, writing: “Because the Taliban […] could not be trusted to prevent Al Qaeda from using its territory to plan and execute future attacks, the Taliban also had to go and be replaced by a government that would pursue policies more supportive of U.S. interests.” Instead he points the finger at “endemic corruption” and the limitations on confronting sanctuaries in Pakistan. For Nagl, “the question is not whether the classic counterinsurgency principles of clear, hold, and build work” but “whether the extraordinary investment of time, blood, and treasure required to make them work is worth making.”

For Powell, there is much truth in analyses focused on the need for counterinsurgency. He calls the lessons that Petraeus (alongside Nagl) learned and institutionalized within the military “a useful advance” but adds “it is not enough,” arguing that there must be “a third strand to [counterinsurgency] in addition to the security response and the ‘hearts-and-minds’ campaign, and that is talking to the armed groups.”

Powell is skeptical about the effectiveness of using military force to defeat a terrorist group — even when utilized according to counterinsurgency theory. He cites Seth Jones and Martin Libicki’s RAND study How Terrorist Groups End, which looked at 648 groups since 1968 and found that 43 percent end with transition to a political process, 40 percent end through policing, and only seven percent end in a military success. Powell writes that Jones and Libicki “were, correctly, trying to demonstrate that George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror’ was not likely to succeed because military defeat of terrorism is very rare,” but Powell cautions that Jones and Libicki as well as other authors have fallen into the “trap” of equating smaller groups like the German Baader Meinhof Gang, which could be defeated by policing, with larger groups “as if they are in some way comparable with the far more substantial Tamil Tigers, [African National Congress], or [the Irish Republican Army].”

Powell also points to Audrey Cronin’s How Terrorism Ends, but notes that “again if you look at the detail, none of the categories except for negotiation seems to work in the end for significant terrorist movements” and furthermore that “some of the groups Cronin lists as having failed either negotiated peace, as the M-19 did in Colombia, or continue to exist … and all of the others are small groups with no real political support.”

Powell warns of the risk of escalation that arises when a military pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy finds itself facing the resilience of entrenched terrorist groups and yet averse to negotiate. In such a circumstance, he writes, “military officials argue that if they are just given the resources and if the politicians stand back they will be able to finish the job.” He points out: “This was the argument used in Afghanistan when President Obama was persuaded to surge forces for one last effort against the Taliban in 2009.”

Powell adds that “eventually the government realizes a purely security approach will not work and that the two sides have to talk.” The question though is what costs, such as lives lost and money spent, are experienced in the meantime.

There is also the risk of chasing illusory examples of military success at the cost of democratic values. As Powell puts it, “it is politically much less difficult to take a firm security stand,” and as a result, “when the armed group proves more resilient than anticipated, governments sometimes slip into extralegal measures.”

For example, Powell criticizes the citation of the supposed defeat of the Shining Path in Peru as a successful implementation of a decapitation strategy noting first that the group’s reliance on its leader was relatively unique, but also that “the methods used to repress Shining Path were extreme, with villages laid waste and frequent massacres by the army … These methods would not be available to a government in a Western democracy, and [Peruvian] President Fujimori now languishes in jail as the result.” Finally, Powell notes: “Shining Path is still not over.”

Terrorists at the Table is full of detailed discussions of how and when to negotiate and what makes some negotiations fail and others succeed drawing from a rich set of examples spanning the world from El Salvador to South Africa to Sri Lanka.

However, Powell’s discussion of attempts at negotiation in Afghanistan or today’s war on terror is less detailed. Without background knowledge or a broader interest in the subject area, it is too easy to come away from Powell’s book with the impression that the United States made little to no attempt at negotiating with the Taliban.

But as a 2013 report by the New America Foundation and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Violence chronicles, there were multiple efforts to negotiate with the Taliban after excluding them from post-invasion peace talks, but the efforts were often confused, lacked strategic planning, and also suffered from a lack of Taliban interest in potential settlements. The report’s historical tracing of the attempts and look at the factors at play raises challenges for Powell’s application of his argument to Afghanistan.

The biggest question is whether the Taliban are even capable of negotiating an end to the conflict. The report’s authors warned: “While Mullah Omar might still guarantee a certain level of cohesiveness to the movement for the moment, this younger generation is potentially more radical; they do not share the irritation with Al Qaeda expressed by some of the older commanders, and are more sympathetic to an international jihadist agenda.” The report also noted the “dizzying” array of local motivations at work in the insurgency, warning that “even should a negotiated settlement somehow emerge between Kabul and the Quetta Shura, it is far from certain that the insurgency would cease.” With American military officials increasingly worried about Taliban splinters that have aligned themselves with the Islamic State, the question of whether there is a sufficiently cohesive Taliban leadership with which to negotiate takes on greater relevance. The confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death emphasizes these challenges.

Of course, Powell’s book is not a history of the Afghan War, but a theoretical argument about why negotiation is necessary and how to do it. Even though the discussion of the specific case of Afghanistan is limited, Powell does lay out the broad theoretical aspects that make sense of the challenges including the need for a “mutually hurting stalemate” for negotiation to succeed as theorized by William Zartman of John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, and a negotiating partner capable of implementing a deal.

One of the points Powell raises is the need to respect individuality amidst the enmity. We live in an era when much of the discussion of the war on terrorism occurs at the level of organizations and not individuals, with calls to confront the “Islamic State” or “al Qaeda.” Some commentators discuss the subject in even more abstract terms like “radical Islam” or “Jihadism.”

Powell provides an antidote to this tendency, writing: “The fact you are negotiating with human beings who have feelings and emotions should be a central consideration in the way you approach the talks.” At another point, he argues that “one of the key ways to build trust is to start treating the members of the armed group like human beings. They are subject to their own traumas, such as torture when captured, and life on the run is tough.”

In one such example, South Africa’s National Intelligence Service Director Niel Barnard arranged for Nelson Mandela’s prison uniform to be replaced with other clothes during negotiations between Mandela and representatives of apartheid South Africa because “he considered respect essential.”

Other examples point to the consequences of how individual identity changes over time. Powell explains that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness joined the Irish Republican Army when they were young, but “by the mid-1980s they were well past fighting age and were beginning to see their nephews and nieces getting arrested or killed. Realizing that the conflict could go on forever, they took the first tentative steps towards ending it.”

Powell also tells the story of how one individual, Colonel Karuna, who commanded the Tamil Tiger forces in the east of Sri Lanka, defected in 2004 after a meeting in Thailand opened “his eyes for the first time to the outside world,” allowing his “liking for women and the good life” to overpower his loyalty. The defection of one key figure “disintegrated” the group’s forces in eastern Sri Lanka and returned the military option to the Sri Lankan government’s arsenal.

Powell’s Terrorists at the Table is an essential contribution to the debate over what went wrong in Afghanistan as well as the debate over the future of counterinsurgency doctrine even though it would benefit from a deeper exploration of the Afghan War and the many factors beyond the aversion to negotiating that have restricted the success of existing negotiations to little more than the return of Sgt. Bergdahl. Ignoring the issues Powell raises will produce an incomplete picture of how and why thousands of Americans lost their lives in the longest war the United States has ever fought — and will have life or death consequences in future conflicts.

David Sterman is a program associate at New America and Assistant Editor of the South Asia Channel. He tweets at @DSterms Twitter: @Dsterms

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