Will we negotiate with Bin Laden?

Tony Blair’s former chief of staff thinks one day, we might.

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, has a rather interesting comment piece in today's Guardian, promoting his three-part documentary Talking to the Enemy, which kicks off on Radio 4 this week.

In the opening paragraph, he writes:

It has become fashionable for western leaders, including generals, to talk about talking to the Taliban. But no one seems to be able to quite bring themselves to actually do it.

Powell adds:

There seems to be a pattern to the west's behaviour when we face terrorist campaigns. First we fight them militarily, then we talk to them, and eventually we treat them as statesmen. That is what Britain did with Menachem Begin and the Irgun in Israel, with Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau in Kenya and with Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus.

But it is his final para that stands out:

In the end there always has to be a political solution. Tough military pressure to convince insurgents that they cannot win, coupled with offering them a political way out, seems to be the only way to resolve such conflict. If history is any guide we will in the next few years be repeating the pattern we went through with Begin, Kenyatta and Makarios, and will be speaking to Mullah Omar, and even perhaps to Osama Bin Laden.

Sorry, what?! Talk to Bin Laden? Says Tony Blair's former chief of staff? How times change. Do you remember the ferocity with which the Labour government, for which Powell then worked, turned on the late Mo Mowlam when the former Northern Ireland secretary dared to suggest negotiating with Bin Laden et al?

From the BBC, 8 April 2004:

Ms Mowlam, who stood down as Redcar MP in 2001, said the US and UK should open dialogue with their enemies.

In an interview with Tyne Tees television to be broadcast on Easter Sunday, Ms Mowlam said the UK and US were acting as a "recruitment officer for the terrorists" by carrying out military action in Iraq.

Asked if she could imagine "al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden arriving at the negotiating table", she replied: "You have to do that. If you do not, you condemn large parts of the world to war for ever.

"Some people couldn't conceive of Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness getting to the table but they did."

Saint Mo was dismissed by her critics as hopelessly naive and a liberal softie. Will hawks dare do the same to Powell, an enthusiastic backer of his then boss's invasion of Iraq, back in 2003?

The debate over engagement with Islamist terrorists, and even Osama Bin Laden, has been shifting in recent years. In 2006, the award-winning investigative reporter Peter Taylor fronted the BBC documentary Al-Qaeda: Time to Talk?, in which he spoke to General Ali Shukri, a former intelligence adviser to King Hussein of Jordan, who told him:

There is no harm in talking. Engagement is not endorsement. Are the Americans prepared to wage war for the next 25 years?

In 2008, Hugh Orde, then head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said he believed Britain should negotiate with the leaders of al-Qaeda: "Well that's the logic of . . . I don't think that's unthinkable, the question will be one of timing."

From the Guardian, 30 May 2008:

Asked whether Britain should attempt to talk to al-Qaeda, [Sir Hugh] said: "If you want my professional assessment of any terrorism campaign, what fixes it is talking and engaging and judging when the conditions are right for that to take place.

"Is that a naive statement? I don't think it is . . . It is the reality of what we face.

"If somebody can show me any terrorism campaign where it has been policed out, I'd be happy to read about it, because I can't think of one."

There has also been a spate of books from scholars and experts in the field, emphasising the importance of "jaw, jaw" over "war, war" -- from Audrey Kurth Cronin's How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns to Mark Perry's Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage With Its Enemies to Louise Richardson's What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat.

Richardson is an Irish political scientist, a former Harvard academic specialising in international security, and is currently principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews. Here is an extract from an interview she did with Spiegel Online in 2007:

Well, I'm not suggesting that President Bush sit across a table from Osama Bin Laden. They would be informal, set up through back channels. These sorts of efforts from the British government were instrumental in the successful resolution of conflict in Northern Ireland. And it's conspicuously lacking from the United States right now.

Talks wouldn't have to be negotiations. Sometimes diplomacy is just a matter of feeling the other side out, of finding out what they actually want. If we could find splits within the organisation of al-Qaeda, we could play them off of each other for our benefit, isolating the most radical elements. Some people say that setting up talks with terror groups would grant them too much legitimacy. But, in my view, declaring war on a terror group is actually the most effective way of granting legitimacy.

Hear, hear!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.