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When talking with terrorists makes sense

Used wisely, talks provide leverage, not appeasement.

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One of the most striking, if tentative, recent examples comes from Iraq, where the US military has come to understandings with Sunni armed groups to cooperate against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Washington initially denounced these groups in the most vitriolic terms as ruthless and blood-thirsty terrorists, yet engaging with them has provided some measure of peace and stability in a troubled society. Second, the prospect of negotiation can weaken armed groups, leading to splits and internal dissension that reduce the threat they pose. Most terrorist and insurgent groups are not monolithic – they have multiple factions, competing leaders, and a diversity of individual motivations for fighting.

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The possibility of cease-fires or a peace settlement often brings these internal contradictions and disagreements to the fore. Even the extraordinarily disciplined Tamil Tigers suffered a major split in 2004 during a peace process, as internal tensions intensified that had been submerged during full-scale war.

In Kashmir, the largest insurgent group, Hizbul Mujahideen, fractured into rival factions between 2000 and 2003 due to internal disagreement about a cease-fire. In both cases, talking – or even just its possibility – weakened highly cohesive and motivated insurgents. Extending an invitation to talk can give governments the space and leverage to identify and isolate the truly irreconcilable militants, and to reach out to more-moderate factions.

Third, cease-fires and negotiations can provide breathing room to a hard-pressed government to refit and rearm. This represents a purely tactical use of talking, but still a valuable one. The British government used a 1975 cease-fire in Northern Ireland to prepare its intelligence and security services for a long-term struggle. Periodic cease-fires between the US and Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army have reduced the pressure on American troops in times of intense strain.

Opponents of talking to terrorists often argue that negotiations will offer legitimacy and credibility to militants. This represents a profound and self-absorbed misunderstanding of the roots of militancy. Armed groups do not emerge and disappear in response to the dictates of the United States. Fighters in the back alleys of Gaza, jungles of Sri Lanka, or mountains of Kashmir wage war for their own reasons, not to gain the approval of American political elites.

Furthermore, as with the "Anbar Awakening" in Iraq or the peace process in Northern Ireland, successful engagement with armed groups is likely to be seen as smart strategic adaptation rather than appeasement. It will often fail to bring peace, but even then can still weaken armed groups by fostering internal dissension or provide valuable breathing room to government forces.

Talking with terrorists doesn't always make sense. And political leaders who want to sound tough on national security can surely score points by promising they'll never negotiate with them. But taking this tool off the table makes it far harder to keep America and its allies safe.

Paul Staniland is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT and a member of the MIT Security Studies Program. He will be a predoctoral research fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 2008-09.