Rational Security

Getting to Yes with the Taliban

The case for negotiating with terrorists.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images
Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Most statesmen confronted by the modern scourge of terrorism have intoned the mantra, "We don’t negotiate with terrorists"; yet many have reached out to them, sometimes with considerable success. An ongoing challenge for world leaders today, in an era in which terrorism has emerged as a full-blown form of irregular warfare, is to continue to be willing to talk with these malefactors. The key is to be able to discern the difference between situations in which the terrorists are simply manipulating the negotiation process to play for time or score propaganda points, and those in which there is real hope for peaceful progress.

One of the clearest examples of the value of negotiating with terrorists is provided by Britain’s willingness to keep talking with the Irish Republican Army — yes, via the gossamer-thin cover of speaking to its political front man, Gerry Adams — over a period of decades. Thus were the modern-era "Troubles," which began in the late 1960s, ended with the IRA’s formal renunciation of all violence in 2005. During these decades, British counter-terrorist forces and IRA gunmen kept on fighting hard, but the negotiations continued as well. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, there was "jaw-jaw as well as war-war." In the end, both sides made meaningful concessions about the political future of Northern Ireland, and a clear path to peace was found, one best described as a self-determination plan that will play out over the long term. Without a willingness to "negotiate with terrorists," this would never have happened.

The bitter Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which began to feature regular acts of terrorism around the same time that the Irish Troubles were getting underway, has seen negotiation reduce both the frequency and severity of violence, particularly since the Oslo Accord was reached 20 years ago. This first substantial agreement between Israel and the then-Palestine Liberation Organization began the slow, sometimes halting path toward Palestinian autonomy and, on the other side, greater recognition of Israel by its enemies. Again, there have been continuing acts of terrorism and retaliation — though of generally decreasing scale on both sides. This is another very good example of knowing when it is worthwhile to negotiate with terrorists — and highlights again the need for "strategic patience."

One more protracted conflict that has featured many acts of terror is the struggle between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the national government. Deep-rooted in resentment over the unequal distribution of land and wealth — 1 percent of the population controls half the arable land — the fighting has been going on for nearly 50 years. The violence has included many acts of terror, hostage-taking, and the like. There have been two major efforts to bring about peace via negotiation. The first came during 1998-2002 when, in the name of "confidence building," the government ceded the FARC a haven roughly the size of Switzerland. This was probably a measure too far, and the insurgents and terrorists were too buoyed. So the government returned to an emphasis on military action, eventually inflicting serious defeats on them over the course of a decade of hard fighting. Which seemed to pay off, as last November a new era of negotiations opened up with ongoing talks, first in Oslo and now in Havana. The great challenge for the Colombian government is to remain open to the possibility of peace, while at the same time avoiding steps that would allow the FARC too much of a chance to get back on its feet.

The American experience in negotiating with terrorists has been mixed, to say the least. The worst debacle unfolded during President Ronald Reagan’s second term, when the world learned in 1986 of his secret effort to sell arms to Iran — a state sponsor of terrorism — via an Israeli cut-out. The initial idea was to use the arms sale to obtain the release of several hostages being held by an Iran-affiliated terrorist group. Indeed, a few hostages were eventually set free, but more Americans were soon kidnapped — seemingly to replace the ones who had been released. It was a bad business that next morphed into an effort to use the profits from the secret arms sales to Iran to finance Nicaraguan insurgents trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime. All came tumbling down when the scheme was inadvertently "outed," thanks to a clerical error with a numbered Swiss bank account.

The Iran-Contra affair was a low point in American dealings with terrorists, but 20 years later in Iraq something far more successful was undertaken. At the height of a bloody insurgency replete with regular acts of terrorism, the decision was taken to start talking to the very Iraqis who were fighting American and allied forces. Full disclosure: This was something I had been lobbying for since 2004, but had to face strong headwinds in the form of the strict no-negotiations sentiments of a huge majority of policymakers and military leaders. Yet when the situation grew dire enough, the willingness to talk increased. Soon, about 80,000 enemy fighters — many of whom resented al Qaeda’s authoritarian attitude — switched sides, and an Iraq that had been losing 100 innocent people each day saw the violence reduced by 90 percent within six months.

This result was far more the product of the arrangements made with those who were now called "the Sons of Iraq" than of the surge of some 20,000 additional U.S. troops into the country. Sadly, complete American withdrawal at the end of 2011 was followed by abrogation of the deals that were made, and the violence is ratcheting back up dangerously. Still, the original idea of bypassing terrorist leaders and reaching out directly to those committing heinous acts was a real breakthrough, a model of how to disrupt a network by aiming at the edges, rather than just trying to rub out leaders.

And it is this example from Iraq that may be the last, best hope for a negotiated solution in Afghanistan. To be sure, there have been all sorts of talks with Taliban leadership over the past several years, but it does feel like they are using negotiations as a means of running out the clock, given their awareness of the American intention to withdraw almost all troops at the end of 2014. Thus, a key lesson may be to start negotiating at the edges of the insurgent and terrorist network, much as was done in Iraq. Far from being too complex an organization to negotiate with, a network actually allows many entry points, many ways to take off a slice here and there. Such a shift in negotiating strategy — from dealing with Taliban "leaders" to reaching out to field commanders and bands of fighters — is far more likely to succeed and, at a minimum, will throw the enemy on the strategic defensive at this critical juncture.

Overall, the historical record suggests there is much to commend the notion of negotiating with terrorists. Talks must be undertaken with much care and caution, and war-war must continue while the parties jaw-jaw. But the potential for finding the way to peace, even in the most pernicious conflicts, is far too good to overlook.

John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.

Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.

His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).

Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”

In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.