A one-time senior aide to former British prime minister Tony Blair is calling for Western powers to negotiate with the extremists of the Islamic State militant group and, in a book just published in the United States, argues that history suggests governments nearly always end up talking to terrorists.
The publication in the U.S. of Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to Peace by Jonathan Powell, has sparked debate about whether it really is possible to negotiate with Islamic extremists in the Levant — and what exactly could be negotiated with them.
Blair’s former aide acknowledges no one is going to negotiate about the terror group’s global caliphate demand, but he argues the extremists may settle for less.
“When it comes to terrorism, governments seem to suffer from a collective amnesia,” Powell argues in his book. “Every time we confront a new terrorist group, we begin by insisting we will never talk to them. As [former U.S. vice president] Dick Cheney put it, ‘we don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.’ In fact, history suggests we don’t usually defeat them and we nearly always end up talking to them.”
Powell’s opponents ask what could the West agree to when it comes to IS. Not a global caliphate, but a more limited one, confined to the borders of the territory that the group currently occupies straddling Syria and Iraq?
Should the West be ready to accept the legitimacy of a caliphate in the Levant, deserting current allies and condemning hundreds of thousands of people to the viciousness of millenarian fanatics, much as Neville Chamberlain did in his appeasing search to avoid war with the Nazis?
Powell’s argument has received qualified endorsement from Newsweek magazine, which headlined an interview with the 58-year-old Powell earlier this month, titled, “Dear ISIS, We Need to Talk.” A line in the article reads, “The insights Powell offers have perhaps never been more relevant.”
Critics assert, though, Powell’s insistence that governments should always talk to terrorists — including the jihadis of the Islamic State group — will be music to the ears of the Islamic State’s leaders. They say negotiating with the group would provide it with legitimacy, something the group’s leadership has been eager to secure.
Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announcement a year ago of a caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq, the terror group’s online English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq has regularly peddled the argument the West’s war strategy is futile and in the end there will have to be talks.
Through its social media propaganda outlets, the terror group also has strenuously sought to portray the ‘caliphate’ as functioning like a ‘normal’ state — from the claimed minting of currency to the reopening of schools, and from the announcement of a medical school to the refurbishment of the so-called state’s very own five-star hotel.
The IS propagandists have been using one of the group’s remaining Western hostages, British photojournalist John Cantlie, as a conduit for floating cease-fire ideas.
“At some stage, you’re going to have to face the Islamic State as a country, and even consider a truce,” he argued in an article last winter, one that is no doubt shaped by his captors. "What’s the alternative, launch airstrikes in half-a-dozen countries at once? They’ll have to destroy half the region if that’s the case.”
Building off his experience as a negotiator with Northern Ireland’s Irish Republican Army during Blair's term in office, Powell argues, “The terrorist groups we encountered in the past also put forward demands that would never be acceptable.
"No British government was ever going to concede a united Ireland against the wishes of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland," he said. "Once discussions were begun with the Irish Republicans, we discovered that they were prepared to settle for something else.”
For Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, Powell’s book is a reflection of British officials’ tendency to see all terrorism through the prism of Northern Ireland.
“The notion that every problem in Northern Ireland is an increasingly chronic mental disorder among British diplomats and officials,” Rubin told VOA. “But, Powell’s argument actually takes the cake for self-parody of the naiveté and self-destructiveness of Western diplomatic culture.”
He also said, “There’s an unfortunate tendency among diplomats and policymakers to allow time to launder the most atrocious regimes.”
Powell cites a long list of terrorists-turned-negotiating-partners to further his argument for dialogue. He mentions Ireland’s Eamon de Valera, Israel’s Menachem Begin, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, and the Cypriot Archbishop Makarios, who was exiled to the Seychelles but then after peace negotiations, reappeared as the first leader of an independent Cyprus.
“This is a question of religious radicalism versus nationalism,” said Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based research institution.
“Salafi-jihadi ideology is far less conducive to dialogue and compromise than nationalist ideologies. Moreover, the British government had concessions to give the IRA," he said. "The West has nothing to offer the Islamic State. That complicates Powell’s premise considerably.”
Powell insists there is “no evidence that religious armed groups are harder to engage than secular ones.” He cites past peace agreements with Islamic armed groups, including the Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines.
Critics note the Free Aceh Movement was more of a separatist-based movement than a jihadi one wanting global domination, and MILF hardliners massacred 44 policemen after a firefight only this January.
In Uganda, years of negotiations with the quasi-religious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have proven fruitless.
Negotiations with the tribes and Sunni fellow travelers who have thrown in their lot with the jihadis in Syria and Iraq do hold out the hope of deconstructing the Sunni insurgency underpinning the ‘caliphate,’ according to some of Powell’s opponents. Sunni tribal leaders in Syria and Iraq say Western officials have reached out to them.