Is it ever OK to negotiate with terrorists?

We should have learned by now that military occupation to deal with terrorism is seldom a good idea: the problem is there are few alternatives.

This contribution appeared in Homeland Security Today on February 17, 2020

HOMELAND SECURITY TODAY — It is looking more and more like the U.S. will ink a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan to enable a draw down of American military forces in that country. For many Americans, I imagine, this is an idea well past its time. Since entering that country in the wake of 9/11 more than 2,400 men and women in uniform have died in what has been called Operation Enduring Freedom. When you add in the wounded and those suffering from ailments such as PTSD you see that the cost in human lives has been significant.

The original decision to go into Afghanistan was a no-brainer. Given the enormity of 9/11 on the U.S. psyche and the fact that the mastermind behind the attack, Al Qaeda’s Usama bin Laden, was using Afghanistan as a haven, not going in with a huge force was simply not an option. I cannot imagine any U.S. president or administration justifying non-action to the American people.

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I will leave the debate on whether this deployment was worth it to others. All I know is that Afghanistan is still a country wracked by terrorism. According to the well-respected Global Terrorism Index, in 2018 that nation ranked #1 in terms of deaths from terrorism worldwide. Equally of note, Afghanistan has never ranked lower than fourth since 2002. In other words, whatever it was that the U.S. and its allies have achieved in Afghanistan since 2001 (NB my own country, Canada, was an early contributor to the military mission and left officially in 2014 after 158 soldiers had died) it sure is not a diminution in terrorism.

Nevertheless, the Trump Administration has decided to negotiate ‘peace’ with the Taliban which, lest I have to remind anyone, is a terrorist group and now the planet’s deadliest one. Some may point out that these violent extremists have vowed to not allow ‘foreign terrorists’ to operate on Afghan soil – and by that I suppose they are referring to the Islamic State in Khorasan which is actually a Taliban rival.

Maybe the Taliban will and maybe it will not

What is not likely to happen, however, is that this terrorist group will abandon the use of violence in toto. Recent days, weeks and months have demonstrated that the Taliban continue to target government forces, law enforcement agencies, civilians and even children in schools. What evidence is there that any of this will change?

None of this is to bolster a position whereby the U.S. and its allies remain in Afghanistan at current levels. Our collective presence in the country in and of itself is both the cause and impetus for violence, including that of the terrorist variety. Every military deployment/occupation in Africa and Asia in recent decades have spawned reactionary movements and terrorist organisations: few like it when outsiders arrive and refuse to leave.

It is looking more and more like the U.S. will ink a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan to enable a draw down of American military forces in that country.

It is true that the U.S. and others have achieved much that is good in the region: better (?) governance, development projects, slightly improved security in some locales, etc. The unfortunate reality is that these positive developments are offset by civilian casualties through drone and air strikes in addition to the general animus towards the outsiders.

We all knew that we would eventually quit Afghanistan and the Trump Administration has made a lot of noises on this and other foreign military missions of late. These programs are classic ‘damned if you and damned if you don’t’ scenarios. We can stay and make a bit more progress but increasingly overstay our welcome or leave and open the door to a (re)rise of terrorist outfits such as the Taliban.

Whatever we decide, can we please not pretend that the Taliban have suddenly become legitimate partners? They are first and foremost a terrorist group and will remain so indefinitely. The U.S. may see the need to engage with them but it should never forget what they really are.

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Of course some would retort that negotiating with ‘terrorists’ has occurred on many occasions and that the results were not as bad as predicted. After all, the Irish Republican Army is now on the cusp of government in the Republic of Ireland (through its association with Sinn Fein) and the African National Congress ended up running South Africa. And yet Irish republicanism still has a violent fringe (Northern Ireland is still part of the UK after all) and South Africa is anything but peaceful, ANC or no ANC. Besides, does anyone really think that the Taliban will become a mainstream, moderate political party that eschews violence and a medieval practice of Islam and is willing to play by the rules of democracy? I did not think so.

My heart goes out to the Afghan people: I hope they can get to what they are collectively seeking to achieve.

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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