Negotiating with Terrorists
There should be a serious discussion of the lessons Canada has learnt from its involvement in Afghanistan. So far, in public discourse at least, this does not seem to be the case. Indeed, a great deal of the commentary has been rather self-congratulatory: Canada went and did a tough job, did it well, earned the respect of our allies, and built up international good will. Sure, we may have technically left before the job was done but our military is to be congratulated and per capita, our contribution was significant.
This is clearly one way to look at Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. As public discourse it is a discourse that, I suspect, comes readily to a lot of Canadians mouths. After all ... who wants to say anything bad about: (a) our own country, (b) soldiers who died, or (c) soldiers who risked their lives. Lurking beneath this discourse, in my view, is a more troubled perspective. Canadians, do not seem to be 100% convinced by the discourse and have questions about the merits of what actually went on. Is Afghanistan notably more secure today then before the Canadian mission? One thing I would like to do is ask some of these tougher questions because, it seems to me, that we need to ask these types of tough questions if we are to learn anything from recent history. Asking tough questions is, of course, not simply democratic (democracies in which the government view is too easily accepted become what Taylor called “soft tyrannies”) but what I do in my job. Asking tough questions, ideally, is a way of getting people to think about how decisions are made, their results, and how they might be improved in the future. It is, IOW, the basis not just of university level education but of engaged and active citizenship.
Let’s start with a tough question up front, a really tough one: what have we learnt about negotiating with terrorists? I will confess that I don’t have an easy answer to this question because I am not certain I have heard anyone in government discuss it other than to reiterate conventional. This is actually a tough question to even ask because it is amenable to all matter of definitional confusion: what exactly is a “terrorist”? I’m not a “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” type of person. I think terrorists know who they are. But, I do recognize that the definition is politically changed. The Russians refer to Chechen attacks on civilians as acts of terror and they did indeed seem to me to be, but the Apartheid regime in South Africa call the ANC terrorists. The Syrian government calls the Free Syrian Army terrorists. I can’t sort all this out in one short blog, but we can acknowledge that there is a political dynamic to definitions of terrorist.
This issue is further complicated by the use of the term “insurgent.” In Afghanistan, insurgents were the “bad guys”: terrorists and those who opposed NATO “stabilization” through force of arms or attacks on civilian, military, and paramilitary targets. (I put “stabilization” in quotation marks because I think the aim of the NATO force was not just stabilization but to ensure a favourable pro-western government, which is something other than simply stabilization. A stable, anti-western government is not what either the US or Canada wants.) Should Canada -- or, more importantly since it is not at all clear Canada could or would have acted alone -- negotiated with the insurgents?
In addition to the definitional problems associated with words like “terrorist” and “insurgent,” there are other problems with this question. The first is that there is, rightly in my view, a general revulsion to negotiating with those who use terrorist tactics. On an official level, the argument is that negotiating with terrorists is a no-win situation. It simply encourages terrorists by making them think that their tactics are successful. This problem becomes even more grave if the goal of the terrorists/insurgents is to get you out of their country. Hence, negotiating with them might involve abandoning the objectives that brought, say, Canada to Afghanistan in the first place. On a political level, this type of negotiating would be a death sentence for a sitting government because if one accepted the goal of the terrorists (forcing Canadian forces out of the country), then the government would have to concede: (a) that is lost or (b) that its involvement in Afghanistan was misplaced to begin with, or (c) both. Such a political stand would, I think, cost a sitting government power. In the case of the Conservative party, it would rattle its popular base.
On a popular level, negotiating with terrorists seems just wrong. It seems like rewarding people for using indiscriminate force. We don’t do that with our neighbours. If my neighbour, say, beat up my son to get me to move the property line in her favour ... I would not do it. I would not “cave in” to such blatant aggression and what is a “might makes right” attitude. Doing so on an international level calls up the same thoughts. Most people, then, think that negotiating with terrorists is ethically wrong because it sends the wrong message. It rewards people who have a callous attitude toward life. Because of this, most people feel that the violence of terrorists must be met with force.
The final problem with this question is that even when we ask it, we have no easy straight forward answer. History does not prove that one approach -- military versus negotiated political settlement -- is preferable to the other in attaining goals. This problem is magnified by what strikes me as a legitimate counter-factual argument. “OK,” someone might say (say, the government of Israel), “we did not negotiate and we did use force and it did not work. Terror attacks on Israelis continued. But, it would have been a heck of a lot worse if we had negotiated or if we had not used force. While we did not succeed in bringing peace to Israel, we did prevent the loss of life.” This is a counter-factual argument to be sure but it is an argument that governments need to ask because it involves the exploration of policy options. We all do this all the time on a minor level (“if I spend my tax return on X, would it be better then spending it on Y”). It is a way of clarifying thoughts. The problem in this case is that it admits no easy answer. There is no way of knowing that one way would have been better then the other.
History is equally mixed up but, and this is the key point I want to make, history does not show that the “never negotiate” approach is inherently better then seeking a political solution. It does not demonstrate, for instance, that a military (force) response to terrorism is inherently better then the negotiate approach in terms of efficacy. The type of argument that I am putting forward involves truly horrible considerations because it allows no safe ethical space on which to stand. For example, if the goal of anti-terrorism policies (including the use of military force) is to save lives, then we are saying that our goal is to save lives. If we can save more lives via political negotiated settlement then we can via a military option, should we take that option even if it is ethically problematic? Anyone who tells you that there is an easy answer to this is lying. Even if we don’t engage in useless and rampant speculation (“sure, you might save lives now but what if you encourage other terrorists?”) we are left calculating lesser evils. We will never find ourselves on the side of angels.
Historical examples do demonstrate that military options don’t have a significant success ratio and, when they do work, there are likely specific reasons as to why they do. The problem is that those specific reasons can’t be easily replicated because they involve the context of that situation. For instance, the government of Sri Lanka crushed the Tamil Tigers but it was able to do this because the Tamil Tigers approximated a regular military force operating out of a defined geographic locale. In this situation, a more effective military could invade and capture the Tiger’s geographic base and capture their leaders along the way because this fight became something more like a standard war.
This same approach failed miserably when Israel tried it in Lebanon because the context was different. The military force needed to occupy a foreign country while needing to secure other borders (something Sri Lanka did not have to do and so could devote its military to one objective) and deal with a more traditionally defined terrorist cells operating in Europe and in the occupied territories made it impossible for Israel to secure its popular through military force. The cost, use of manpower, and loss of life were, in the long run, prohibitive. It is also possible, as the NATO force has found in Afghanistan, that the geography of the country can work against you. The Afghan Taliban insurgents are not on the level of the Tamil Tigers in terms of getting close to a regular military force but they are something much more then a motley band of bandits wandering the countryside. They can use the geography to their advantage and slip away, moving to safe havens or other countries, out of reach of NATO forces. Moreover, Afghanistan is not Sri Lanka. NATO is an occupying force; not a force fighting in its own country.
What this means is that a military solution is far more difficult in Afghanistan or in Israel then it was in Sri Lanka and even in Sri Lanka, the military solution took a very, very long time. The government of Columbia (a pretty darned problematic government to be sure) has spent a generation hunting communist insurgents through its countryside without long-run success (despite victories) and it, theoretically at least, is fighting on its home turf.
There are also examples where political negotiated settlement worked. It worked in Ireland. The British government spent a generation trying to implement a military solution and made little appreciable headway (despite some fairly draconian measures). The solution that brought peace to Ireland was a negotiated settlement; not a military solution. The apartheid regime in South Africa ultimately conceded that it could not defeat the ANC through military means and that the best solution for the future security of the RSA was a negotiated settlement. As with Ireland, they were right.
There are other examples that show different approaches. Italy and Germany used policing against Red Brigade terrorists in the 1970s to effect; Canada deployed a combination of negotiation and force to stamp out the FLQ. Neither groups had significant popular support and that made it easier to address them, but you see the point: different solutions can work in different contexts.
The question is: what is the context of Afghanistan? Is it possible to negotiate with the Taliban? What are the ethics of doing so? What are the ethics of not doing so if one knows for as close to absolute certain as one can get that a failure to negotiate will mean deaths?
One of the great advantages of a blog is that one does not have to have answers. I don’t. But, it seems to me that as we think about the lessons of Afghanistan, these are questions that need to be asked. If we don’t ... we won’t learn anything from the experience.