Can we talk with terrorists?

Sometimes we have to do things we really would rather not: negotiating with terrorists may be one of them.

Sometimes we have to do things we really would rather not: negotiating with terrorists may be one of them.

DO YOU EVER read advice columns? I think you know what I am referring to: people like ‘Dear Abby’ who receive letters from individuals and dish out recommendations on what to do or not to do. And in case in you thought this all began in the US in the mid-1950s, think again. The first such feature dates back to the late 17th century in London: The Athenian Mercury

Most of us seek and use advice on occasion. We realise that we do not have the answers to all life’s problems and can benefit from the knowledge and experiences of others. Ignoring the input from our friends, families, and, on occasion professionals, is just dumb.

I am not sure who Abby was back then. (Photo: Public Domain)

Jaw-jaw is better than war

One of the better pieces of wisdom I use a lot in my talks is something Winston Churchill said in Washington in 1954: jaw-jaw is better than war. He meant of course that we should exhaust all possibility of negotiation before we elect to take up arms. If you think war is the answer to our problems you really should talk to someone who has been there: former soldiers are almost always against war as a concept.

So, if talking is better than fighting should we extend that practice to terrorist groups?

This is not a moot point. The US really wants to get out of Afghanistan and has been engaged in on-again off-again talks with the Taliban, which is after all a terrorist group and not just any terrorist group but the one responsible for most deaths from terrorism in the world as of 2020. If these talks succeed and the US leaves, Afghanistan will most likely fall to the Taliban – again. This bunch of terrorists has stated publicly that the ‘peace talks’ are a ruse to effect the withdraw of foreign forces from the region and there is also some information that Al Qaeda (AQ) relations with the Taliban “continue to be close and mutually beneficial.” 

And this is not the only instance where someone says maybe talks with terrorists are worth considering. The UN’s top humanitarian official in Mali has just urged more ‘engagement’ with armed groups including jihadists, and more aid and development funding, saying that extra troops would not help to stabilise the country. Ute Kollies noted:

“I do not believe that more military would help. What we need is more engagement on the political front.”

What is the alternative?

In other words, Mali has to sit down and talk with a whole bunch of Islamist extremist groups, some associated with AQ, some with Islamic State (ISIS) and some independents, all of which together have killed thousands of civilians in their attempts to create a barbaric medieval state they think reflects ‘true’ Islam. Who in their right mind would want to do this?

I doubt anyone would. And yet, what is the alternative? It has been demonstrated quite clearly that more guns and planes and drones will never ‘defeat’ terrorism, meaning there is no military solution to all of this. Foreign troops will go home eventually and it is unlikely that the materiel and training given to local forces will eventually ‘defeat terrorism’ either. We are thus in a stalemate.

If you ask me I am becoming more and more convinced there is no ‘solution’ to all this. Nevertheless, we have to keep trying as the alternative – remember the accounts of ‘life’ under the ISIS pseudo-Caliphate? – are too horrible to countenance. What we do need is more thought and input on other ways to approach the problem.

Maybe talks with terrorists are part of that approach. I cannot support this but then again I am not living close to the problem. Whatever the locals decide to do I hope is helps alleviate the hellish conditions their populations are living under.

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By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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