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.

Nor has attachment to the Northern Ireland model diminished in the two years since. In a recent set of remarks, coming on the heels of one of the bloodiest months of fighting for British forces in Afghanistan, Foreign Secretary David Miliband argued before a NATO audience that a key problem in Afghanistan was that the Afghan government has not sufficiently reached out to the Taliban and made it clear that they would have a seat at the table in governing the country if they were only willing to put aside their attachment to a global jihadist agenda. This followed remarks by the head of Britain's development agency, Douglas Alexander, who has explicitly tied the prospect of (and need for) such talks with the Taliban to those that had ended the conflict in Northern Ireland.

However, according to this marvelous new study, Talking to Terrorists: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country, there are serious reasons to doubt that the model of conflict resolution relied on here is an accurate account of what actually happened in Northern Ireland and, therefore, a realistic guide for dealing with similar terrorist insurgencies.

Was London's willingness to engage in talks with the Irish Republican Army really the prime mover in changing the dynamic and creating the conditions for the IRA to lay down its arms? Although authors John Bew, Martyn Frampton, and Iñigo Gurruchaga are careful not to claim that their study offers an alternative model for democracies dealing with such problems, they provide such a detailed and thorough deconstruction of the prevailing narrative--when it comes to negotiations with both the IRA and the Basque Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA)--that it is difficult not to conclude that the "talk first, guns later" strategy has things pretty much in reverse.

The "troubles" in Northern Ireland were rooted in the fact that the Pro- testant majority had ruled the roost in a manner that left minority Roman Catholics believing they had held the short end of the stick, politically and economically, for decades. Add to this discontent an Irish nationalism that dreamed of incorporating Ulster into the Republic of Ireland, and a late '60s international scene in which civil rights and political reform movements were splintering into more radical efforts, and you have the combustible mix leading to the violence that broke out in Northern Ireland in 1968-69.

The government, then headed by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, reacted as one might expect. The British Army was sent in to restore order. Employing an array of security tools borrowed from its days policing more difficult parts of the Empire, the British military may have created sympathy for the republican cause and given extremists within the IRA the excuse to create an even more radical and violent movement, the Provisional IRA. For the next 30 years it would be the "Provos" who would use terrorism as their tool of choice in an effort to force the creation of a unified Irish state.

By 1972 the British government, now under the leadership of Conservative Edward Heath, had deepened its role in Northern Ireland, suspended local governance, and implemented direct rule from London. Now in opposition, Harold Wilson decided to meet secretly with the Provisional IRA in Dublin, overturning the oft-stated tenet that London would never talk to the terrorists. Apparently believing this was an indirect approach by the government, the Provo leadership reached out directly to the Tory government.

Initially, Heath rejected the idea of a meeting; but following the bombing of the Guildhall in Londonderry in June, London reversed course and agreed to sit down with the IRA as well. That clandestine meeting produced nothing concrete in terms of cease-fires or a potential program for reconciliation. But according to Talking to Terrorists, it did have one decisive result. It gave the Provos the sense that the British were on the ropes: "Consequently, the July 1972 meeting--which occurred in the context of a bitter and apparently escalating IRA insurgency--fueled the republican sense 'one more push' might be enough to force the British to reconsider its position in Northern Ireland" and withdraw.

Although the IRA was beginning to suffer serious losses as a result of internments and the increased capacity of British intelligence to penetrate its ranks, and was worried about the movement's long-term prospects, London seemed to be in an even more desperate state--and showed it. With all kinds of serious domestic and economic problems to face, Harold Wilson, having returned to 10 Downing Street in 1974, was more than willing to talk to the IRA and, more important, allow his own interlocutors to signal considerable ambiguity on his government's commitment to staying in Northern Ireland.

All of this furnished the IRA with substantial incentive to ratchet up the pressure in the short term, which it did during 1974-1975 with a terrorist bombing campaign aimed at England itself. With uncertainty on Downing Street, and no obvious strategy for resolving the conflict coming from Whitehall, the British public's appetite for making a go of it in Northern Ireland disappeared. By late 1975, some two-thirds of the British public wanted the troops out of Northern Ireland altogether.

As Talking to Terrorists notes, however, it was precisely at this darkest moment that the British government began to develop a strategy that would eventually lead to today's success. Ironically, this was driven in part by the very idea that the British might actually leave Northern Ireland: Once on the table for consideration, both Dublin and London were forced to consider the possible ramifications of doing so. Neither capital was sure that all hell wouldn't break loose once the British stepped aside--probably forcing London to intervene yet again, this time in even less favorable circumstances.

At that point, sounder minds in Whitehall came to see that they had to stop reacting to events, develop a comprehensive political and security strategy, and be willing to sustain the effort for the long haul.

Now, in truth, and as this volume makes evident in rich detail, the British government's execution of this strategy was hardly pretty or consistent, and IRA terrorism would continue for another two decades. But in reality, and with a degree of hindsight, the security and political policies put in place by London after the mid-1970s cleared a path to what exists today: a Northern Ireland governed by consent, with more institutional protections for the minority, and parties that have been demilitarized.

Of particular importance was the growing sophistication of the British security effort. While it is true that London pulled the army off the streets in Northern Ireland, this was not the same (as some have suggested) as abandoning a security-first agenda. With retrained police on the beat, the use of special forces to take down IRA operatives, and an increased capacity to penetrate the inner ranks of the IRA itself, the war against the Provos was slowly but surely won, street-by-street, pub-by-pub, cell-by-cell. And crucially, as the book argues, the IRA knew it.

By the early 1990s it was time, as one republican strategist put it, for the IRA to "cash in" its chips. As a result, when talks resumed between the government and the IRA, they did so on fundamentally different terms than those that had obtained in the early 1970s. On this point, Talking to Terrorists diverges most clearly from the conventional narrative, which has the British government--and a Conservative government at that--finally realizing that it could not defeat the IRA and would have to negotiate with it. While Margaret Thatcher, and later John Major, were willing "to open the door .  .  . to negotiations," the terms for republicans' walking through it were an end to violence and acceptance of the principle that whatever new political arrangement was constructed for Northern Ireland, it would rest on the consent of the people.

Given the Protestant majority in Ulster, this second condition meant that a united Ireland was effectively off the negotiating table. As the authors note, by accepting these two conditions for talks, "the IRA would effectively be acceding to a reality against which it had fought for 30 years." No more terrorism, no all-of-Ireland state.

Of course, concluding a deal would take another decade, a period marked by IRA foot-dragging, Labour missteps in the final stages of negotiations, and the sometimes useful, sometimes not interventions of American administrations. In reality, the final political-constitutional settlement was not all that different from what had been proposed by the British in the early 1970s, a point noted in the book. But the difference was that earlier strategic and tactical incoherence in London had given the IRA life, and it was not until the Provos were (as one key participant noted) "prepared to consider throwing in the towel," that an accord was finally reached.

A little less than a third of Talking to Terrorists is devoted to a case study of Spain's decades-long conflict with the Basque terrorist group, ETA. In existence since the late 1950s, ETA turned, like the IRA, to violence and terrorism in the late 1960s, with a goal of forcing the Spanish government to grant the Basque region independence from Madrid. By contrast with Northern Ireland, no peace agreement has ever been close to being finalized. But this has not been for lack of trying: Over the years the Spanish government has applied a mixture of carrots and sticks, but with some exceptions, has not done so coherently.

In the beginning, the major obstacle Madrid faced in dealing with ETA was the fact that, until 1975, Spain was ruled by Francisco Franco, giving the ETA something of the patina of "freedom fighters." This, in turn, allowed the French government to ignore the fact that its territory--akin to how the Irish government initially looked upon the IRA--was being used by the ETA as a logistics, planning, and command safe haven. Over time, this has changed, as Spain has become a democracy and French security cooperation with the Spanish government has increased. Indeed, one of the more remarkable elements of the fight against ETA is just how many body blows it has taken over the past two decades from Spanish and French police and intelligence efforts--and lives to fight on.

A key reason for the ETA's intransigence is that, for the past two decades, successive leftist governments in Madrid have decided to talk to ETA at the least opportune times. Bombs go off, people die, and new "dialogues" are undertaken. Kidnappings take place, and talks start up again. Barcelona was hosting the Olympics: Best to start a new outreach beforehand.

As a result, time and again, ETA has been led to believe that terrorism might just pay off. The lone exception to this behavior was the presidency of José María Aznar, who increased the political, legal, and security pressures on ETA and raised cooperation with the French. Only in 1998, when the ETA put forward, in conjunction with other Basque political parties, its own road map for solving the conflict and announced a cease-fire, did Aznar signal his government's willingness to begin talks. But this self-conscious effort by ETA to mimic the Good Friday agreement, reached that year among the various parties in Northern Ireland, was bound to fail.

It was bound to fail precisely because it assumed, as conventional accounts of the Irish peace process put it, that resolution of the conflict rested on the assumption that "neither [the British government nor the IRA] could win." Accordingly, the ETA negotiating position was bound to overestimate what the Spanish government was willing to accept. So the fault lies less with the Spanish government's position than with a misreading of the underlying realities of how the reconciliation in Northern Ireland came about.

With talks going nowhere, Madrid kept its foot to the pedal on the political and security fronts, and by 2003 ETA operations had become nearly negligible in terms of their effect on daily life in Spain. During the first three months of 2004, for example, ETA was unable to pull off a single attack, and there were indications that some of its members had concluded that the armed effort was not succeeding. In short, the tide might well have been turning.

In the wake of the deadly Islamist terror bombings in Madrid, however, Aznar's successor was defeated in his party's bid for a third term by the Socialist José Luis Zapatero. Zapatero and the Socialists entered office on a platform that included support for Catalonian autonomy and devolution of power to the regions. Although seemingly careful never to cross the line of being open to Basque independence, Zapatero's campaign pledges almost surely led ETA to believe they were once again on the right side of history.

Equally problematic, Zapatero stated that one of the lessons he gleaned from Tony Blair's experience in dealing with Northern Ireland was that "[the British] always kept a channel of communications open." As Bew, Frampton, and Gurruchaga pointedly note, "To many, it seemed as if the Prime Minister had opened the latest chapter in the Spanish state's engagement with ETA by effectively telling the organization that even if it killed again, dialogue would not be broken off."

With ETA misreading what the government was willing to concede, it's no surprise that the talks went nowhere. It's also no surprise that ETA, frustrated with the lack of progress, struck once again: On December 30, 2006, they used a bomb to destroy a car park at Madrid's new airport, killing two and injuring dozens. Predictably, both Tony Blair and Gerry Adams, the longtime political face of the IRA, weighed in to advise the Spanish government that it was still incumbent they "listen to ETA."

Go to almost any European capital for talks with foreign ministry and defense officials, or most Washington think-tank discussions about Afghanistan, for that matter, and you will almost certainly hear this: "No government can hope to defeat an insurgency by killing and capturing its way to victory." At one level, the point is obviously true, and no serious analyst thinks otherwise. An effective counterinsurgency strategy requires a comprehensive set of tools that involves hard and soft power, properly applied to a very concrete set of country conditions.

But the key is how those tools are applied--and when.

In truth, when somebody says an insurgency can't be beat by force of arms, what they usually mean is: We think efforts toward reconciliation are too low a priority, and that getting terrorists/insurgents to end their military efforts is more important--more urgent than the long, hard slog of rebuilding a state and securing the population. For such people, the British experience in Northern Ireland remains sacrosanct.

It's no surprise, then, that Michael Semple, who was tossed out of Afghanistan for talking to the Taliban, has just coauthored a piece in Foreign Affairs ("Flipping the Taliban: How to Win in Afghanistan") which argues precisely that: "Washington should substitute the model of the British experience in Northern Ireland for the Soviet one in Afghanistan." Semple is not oblivious to the need for more troops, but claims it "will have a lasting impact only if accompanied by .  .  . a committed effort to persuade large groups of Taliban fighters to put down their arms and give up the fight."

Noting that the United States was able to convert thousands of Iraqi Sunnis from insurgents to supporters of the government, Semple, drawing on his own knowledge of the Taliban, argues that many (if not most) of the Taliban commanders can be "flipped" into joining forces with the government: "In Afghanistan," he writes, "battles have often been decided less by fighting than by defections. Changing sides, realigning, flipping .  .  . is the Afghan way of war."

What is required, according to Semple, is a serious effort by the government in Kabul "on striking deals with important insurgent networks rather than with average fighters," and a clear commitment on the part of America and our allies to getting out as the process of reconciliation progresses. And reconciliation "should start before the pursuit of any comprehensive settlement."

Yet if the authors of Talking to Terrorists are correct in their reading of the efforts by British and Spanish governments at reconciling their own insurgencies to the existing political order, then Semple's road map is unlikely to lead to either stability or peace. Indeed, it is the very fact that Afghanistan's insurgent commanders have a history of "flipping" at any sign of a change in the balance of power that makes a lasting reconciliation unlikely until and unless they have no real alternatives. This is especially true if the principles for a comprehensive settlement are left unsettled, as Semple suggests.

At best, Semple's advice may lead to some short-term gains, but it plants the seeds for reconciliation's own undoing. If we have learned nothing else from the experience of the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, it's that it only occurred because the Sunnis found themselves in the impossible strategic situation of simultaneously fighting al Qaeda and Iraqi and American forces, they had a constitutional alternative that promised a substantial level of local self-governance, and they came to believe that the American troop surge could make their rejection of al Qaeda a realistic alternative.

In short, the conditions for "flipping" insurgent leaders and their followers are far more complex and onerous than Semple and the conventional wisdom about Northern Ireland care to admit.

Talking to Terrorists is modest in its claims. It "is not intended to provide a rigid model or template" for governments dealing with insurgencies and terrorists. But there are three policy points that the book's two case studies certainly emphasize. First, it seems inevitable that democratic governments will, at some point, get around to talking to their adversaries, the insurgents. Second, "constructive ambiguity" about the political principles guiding a final settlement may be useful for getting people seated at a table, but it is counterproductive in reaching a final accord. And finally, and most important, if talking to terrorists is inevitable, there is "a crucial qualitative difference between talking to terrorists who are the crest of a wave .  .  . and talking to terrorists who have been made to realize that their aims are unattainable by violent means."

Gary Schmitt is resident scholar and director of advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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