Should We Try Talking to al Qaeda?

by Steven R. Corman

According to a weekend story in The Guardian, Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair, called for dialog with al Qaeda:

There’s nothing to say to al-Qaida and they’ve got nothing to say to us at the moment, but at some stage you’re going to have to come to a political solution as well as a security solution. And that means you need the ability to talk.

The article attributes Powell’s position to his experience in negotiations with the Irish Republican Army, where he is said to have played a central role.

The Guardian’s prediction that his remarks would be “highly controversial” was a safe one. One commenter on Free Republic replied: “Talk with al Qaeda, eh? How did that work out in Munich for Great Britain in 1938, Jonathan?”

Of the reasoned objections to Powell’s call, most arguments centered on the idea that the IRA is a bad analogy for al Qaeda. While in the Ireland situation the terrorists were a relatively well-organized group with clear political demands, this is not the case with al Qaeda. Blogger Tom Freeman put it this way:

‘al-Qaeda’ is not a single entity. First, there’s the group centred on Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, fugitives in the Afghan-Pakistani border regions. Their contact with wider groups is much diminished since 9/11, and in any case they have no interest in compromise. They’re also pretty hard to find.

Second there is the broader network of sympathetic “franchise” groups. So who would we communicate with?

Critics also point out that there is no basis for expecting concessions on either side. To be sure, bin Laden and his associates present a consistent set of demands to the West, like removing every last Westerner from the Arabian Peninsula, stopping support for Israel and “apostate regimes” in the Middle East, stopping efforts to lower oil prices, and converting to Islam. Could either side be expected to give in on any of these demands?

In short, the dispute between al Qaeda and the West shows most of the signs of intractable conflict:

  1. In terms of actors, intractable conflicts involve states or other actors with a long sense of historical grievance, and a strong desire to redress or avenge these.
  2. In terms of duration, intractable conflicts take place over a long period of time.
  3. In terms of issues, intractable conflicts involve intangible issues such as identity, sovereignty, or values and beliefs.
  4. In terms of relationships intractable conflicts involve polarized perceptions of hostility and enmity, and behavior that is violent and destructive.
  5. In terms of geopolitics, intractable conflicts usually take place where buffer states exist between major power blocks or civilizations.
  6. In terms of management, intractable conflicts resist many conflict management efforts and have a history of failed peacemaking efforts.

Transformation of an intractable conflict requires communication, so does Powell have a point? His critics have good arguments about the improbability of negotiations (a point that Powell himself acknowledges). But we should recognize that in five years of trying we haven’t had much luck stopping the radical islamist movement by killing its members. If that strategy isn’t working, and talking to them isn’t acceptable, and we’re not willing to accept perpetual conflict, what should we do instead?