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.

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism