Another staycation day, another book from the unread pile bites the dust. This time it was a deep dive into armed conflict resolution in Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts.
Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is one of the clearest thinkers on negotiation with armed groups that I’ve read. That said, his writing here is a slog to get through. The book is anecdote rich and upfront that negotiation is an art rather than a science but this could have been leaner and more readable if his insights were not buried deep inside the examples.
To Powell there is no conflict so insoluble that it cannot be unlocked through talking. He points out that Governments always talk to terrorists, even when they say they do not or will not. Negotiations resulting from these talks might fail, but any progress can be built on incrementally. A failure today, yesterday, and last year does not preclude success tomorrow or in five years.
It was negotiation that brought a peaceful end to the apartheid state of South Africa. Negotiation created a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland, it brought about the disbanding of ETA in Spain and FARC in Columbia. The road to these solutions only revealed itself when both sides, no matter how distasteful they found one another, talked in private.
Opening with a discussion of what we understand to be modern terrorism, with no pride do I mention he states it was developed by the Irish, it is Powell’s belief that the path to peaceful resolution always starts with private talks.
Over the course of the book he builds a convincing argument that this is the case, engaging with the counter arguments around never negotiating until terrorists are about to be annihilated. It is Powell’s assertion that time again a new terrorist threat emerges and it never reaches the point of collapse governments like to think it has. Security, military and technological solutions are deployed to combat the terrorists and while a lot of people die none of those solutions solve the problem. The terrorism mutates and carries on as the terrorist acts are the most visible symptom of another underlying set of problems.
This book was published seven years ago but it is the author’s conclusion that to make progress on the dissolution any armed group, be their doctrine what the West would call rational or apocalyptic, you have to sit down with them. All terrorist groups begin with unreasonable demands, even the ones that state their ambition is to wipe out a competing ideology entirely. What matters in the end is the terrorists ability to park the extreme position and talk about on everything else around it. It is there the path forward to peace begins.
Overall, an interesting read but hard work to dig through.