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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Emily Thornberry triumphs over Brexit

The shadow foreign secretary skewered Theresa May's stand-in David Lidington. 

Two years ago, when Emily Thornberry was forced to resign from Ed Miliband's shadow cabinet over her white van tweet, few would have expected her to return to the frontbench. Today, she led her party at Prime Minister's Questions. Jeremy Corbyn has appointed his Islington neighbour as his stand-in when he or Theresa May is absent. With both the Prime Minister and Philip Hammond abroad, Thornberry faced David Lidington, the hitherto obscure Leader of the Commons. 

Thornberry, a former barrister, arrived with a reputation as a strong parliamentary performer. It was one enhanced today. From her first question, the shadow foreign secretary was in control. "Does the government want the UK to remain part of the customs union?" As Thornberry anticipated, Lidington was unable to say, merely promising "additional clarity about our position at the earliest opportunity". 

Rather than relenting (as Corbyn sometimes does), Thornberry pressed her advantage. "Does he still agree with himself?” she asked after quoting a doom-laden warning from the pro-Remain Lidington. "There has been a referendum since February," he retorted, warning that it would be harmful to the "national interest" to provide a "detailed exposition of our negotiating position". With pantomime theatricality, an exasperated Thornberry replied: “Dear, oh dear. We’re not asking for details, we’re asking about a central plant of the negotiation."

When she turned to the status of the Irish border, Lidington was similarly hamstrung. "There is good will on all those sides to try and reach a solution," was all he could promise. The Leader of the House wasn't hiding the answers; he doesn't know the answers. 

Thornberry's line of attack was aided by rare clarity on the Labour side. The opposition, she declared, supported customs union membership. By contrast, "we have a government that cannot tell us the plan because they do not have a plan." Thornberry ended by once again torturing Lidington with his own words: "In February, the Leader of the House said what he was hearing about from the Leave campaign was confusing, contradictory nonsense. My final question is this: are we hearing anything different from this government today?" Lidington's retort fell flat: "[Labour's] quarrelling like Mutiny on the Bounty re-shot by the Carry On team". From the gallery above, Thornberry's spin doctor Damian McBride smiled at a job well done. 

The odds on Lidington succeeding May are unlikely to have shortened. But Thornberry, a Corbyn loyalist, has shown why it would be hasty to write her off. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.