The Magazine

Peace, It's Wonderful

But winning it is hard work.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By GARY SCHMITT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Talking to Terrorists

Making Peace in Northern Ireland
and the Basque Country

by John Bew, Martyn Frampton,
and Inigo Gurruchaga

Columbia, 256 pp., $27.50

Late in 2007 Michael Semple, an Irishman working as a top official for the European Union in Afghanistan, and Mervyn Patterson, a Briton employed as a political officer for the United Nations in Afghanistan, were ordered by the Afghan government to leave the country. According to various press accounts, President Hamid Karzai gave the order after discovering that Semple and Patterson had been engaged in talks with local Taliban leaders in the province of Helmand without coordination or guidance from Kabul.

Semple, in particular, was no ordinary EU bureaucrat: Fluent in Dari, he had worked in Afghanistan for close to two decades and had, as a result, extensive contacts within the Taliban. And while Semple and Patterson's activities might have been at odds with the policy of Kabul, any number of other sources were reporting that it was consistent with the British government's own efforts at the time to reach out to the Taliban. As one source was quoted as saying, British intelligence "officers were understood to have sought peace directly with the Taliban, with them coming across as some sort of armed militia."

If true, what London presumably had in mind was to create in Afghanistan a dynamic similar to the so-called Anbar Awakening in Iraq, during which former Sunni insurgents flipped to the side of the government in exchange for being allowed to maintain an armed presence in their own communities.

Certainly, the British had good reason to be reaching out to the Taliban in December 2007. Having just retaken the Helmand town of Musa Qala from Taliban forces earlier that month, British troops were in the precarious position of trying to hold both Musa Qala and large swaths of Helmand to the south, and do so with too few troops. In addition, there were any number of officials in London who believed that the way forward in Afghanistan would come not by succeeding militarily but through talks designed to "reconcile" the Taliban with the new order in Afghanistan.

This was, after all, precisely the process that had allowed Britain to end the "troubles" in Northern Ireland just a few years earlier. Wasn't it talks, not heavy-handed security measures, that pulled the seemingly irreconcilable Irish Republican Army into laying down its arms and accepting a political solution?

You could paper the walls with quotations from commentators and onetime officials to the effect that it was not until the British government understood that it could not defeat the IRA militarily that progress could be made on devising a settlement with which all parties in Northern Ireland could live. It's also bandied about that the lessons from that experience are applicable far and wide. As Lord Mandelson, the former secretary of state for Northern Ireland and (currently) first secretary of state in the Brown cabinet, has suggested: When it comes to addressing the threat of Islamist terrorism, the United States could learn a thing or two from the British experience in fighting Irish terrorism. Rather than engage in a "war on terror," it was London's decision to "negotiate with the IRA through its political wing rather than [trying] to defeat it," which ultimately proved successful.

Similarly, Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair, has argued in the case of Northern Ireland that "maintaining contact" with the terrorists was critical and that setting a precondition for talks is "always an error." From this, he concludes, "talking to your enemy" is absolutely necessary and, more broadly, "to argue that al Qaeda or the Taliban are different .  .  . is nonsense."

With this as the reigning view of how the IRA was "brought in from the cold," it's no surprise that Semple and Patterson (both originally from Ulster) tried to apply in Afghanistan the model of conflict resolution that they believed had been the winning formula in Northern Ireland.