The ossified conventional wisdom among much of America's political class is that talking to terrorists is always and everywhere a bad idea. The ghosts of the 1938 Munich Agreement – forever linked with capitulation to Nazi Germany – aren't allowed any rest, busy as they are being hurled at the target of the day.
Sen. Barack Obama felt he was the target when President Bush criticized the "false comfort of appeasement" in a speech before the Israeli Knesset earlier this month. Recalling Hitler's march across Europe, Mr. Bush mocked those who "believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." Sen. John McCain quickly echoed the sentiment.
While many politicians are willing to engage with "rogue states" such as Iran and North Korea, they draw the line at terrorists, who are seen as intrinsically ruthless and radical. That's why "I will not negotiate with terrorists" is a refrain heard across the political spectrum – and why Jimmy Carter took such flak recently for visiting with Hamas.
But this knee-jerk rejection of negotiation with radicals is deeply misguided and likely to do more harm than good. The smart question is not whether to talk to terrorists, but, instead, which terrorists to talk to and how to talk to them.
Many nonstate militants are weak and peripheral; they can be quickly squashed or contained without any need for negotiation. For instance, violent left-wing groups such as the Red Brigades in Italy and Weather Underground in the US were eliminated in the 1970s without negotiation.
But some terrorist and insurgent groups are very powerful. They are embedded in robust social networks, generate revenues from areas under their control, and have enough military power to impose serious costs on governments. They cannot be easily crushed, nor can they be wished away.Negotiations and cease-fire talks, or their offer, should be seen as one of a range of tools for overcoming militancy. Indeed, there are three good strategic reasons to talk to these kinds of armed organizations.
First, and most ambitiously, it is possible that an arrangement can be made with militant groups to end violence. The Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland, African National Congress in South Africa, and Mizo National Front in northeastern India have all been fully brought into the political system. The Maoist rebels in Nepal, meanwhile, may be heading in this direction.
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.
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.