Submitted by Max Freundlieb

In the face of violence, governments frequently invoke the policy “We don’t talk to terrorists.” George W. Bush cited it in response to the 9/11 attacks, as did Margaret Thatcher at the height of the IRA bombings. The debate on whether or not to pursue engagement with terrorist actors has largely been academic.  Politicians have publicly denounced talks while simultaneously using backchannels to Proscribed Armed Groups (PAGs), the official term for terrorist organizations. Proscription refers to a regime of blacklisting groups and individuals accused of terrorist activities by states and supranational organizations.  

So why is this a debate worth having? Academic debates shape public opinion. Arguing in favor of engagement with PAGs hopefully influences the latter and reduces the political cost of leaders to seek a negotiated instead of an exclusively military solution. 

“Terrorist” is a political term; it accuses an actor of inhumane, indiscriminate and unjust killings, reduces his identity to that sole aspect, and pushes his interests outside what seems negotiable. The Kurdish PKK, Al Qaeda, and Nelson Mandela have been denounced as terrorists, showing the controversies and potential abuse of the term. IR scholar Zartman has introduced the valuable distinction between absolute terrorists, whose actions are either non-instrumentalist (violence constituting both the means and the goal) or unfeasible (such as the creation of an ISIS-kind of caliphate), and non-absolute or engageable terrorists who use terror as a bargaining chip for (legitimate) political demands. 

Although terrorism is never an acceptable course of action to achieve political ends, choosing negotiation with non-absolute PAGs represents in certain cases the right path forward when seeking peace. This is proven by three dynamics.

Firstly, after decades of conflict, PAGs can be far removed from discussions in international politics and be unaware of their political options. Engagement is needed to inform PAGs about their peaceful alternatives and convince them to pursue their interests politically instead of militarily. Engagement can also help PAGs to reflect on their interests and strategies, resulting in changing unconditional and radical demands to more realistic and attainable ones. Depending on the change, this action might make absolute PAGs engageable, opening the way for political negotiations.  

Secondly, the activities of terrorist groups can end in three different ways: victory, defeat or joining the political process as part of a negotiated agreement. A Rand study from 2008 analyzing 648 terrorist groups between 1968-2006 concluded that most groups ended in the latter option, while military victories by either side remained rare. The argument is therefore straightforward. The most effective way to end armed conflicts is to engage PAGs in negotiation. Considering the length of military campaigns against PAGs and their financial and humanitarian costs, negotiations might also be the most efficient path to peace. 

Thirdly, contrary to the often-cited opinion that negotiation with PAGs should be considered a concession to terrorist actors, their methods and values, this argument put forward by Evan Tyner suggests that it “merely acknowledge the existence and exhibit a pragmatic will to end conflicts, putting ideology and doctrine aside.” Negotiations are based on the distribution of power. If PAGs or the government could more effectively realize their interests by force, they would not negotiate.  

The phrase “You negotiate peace with your enemies, not with your friends” invoked by James Barker and Nelson Mandela shows that rejecting negotiations with actors because of their values is a paradox since you can only negotiate peace with people you fundamentally disagree with. If there would be no disagreement over norms, ideologies or competing interests, there would be no conflict, and therefore no need to negotiate in the first place. As long as liberal norms such as human rights or stable democratic systems fail to be respected in the context of armed conflicts, choosing negotiations is the sensible and responsible way forward to end violence and foster these norms in the long run.

A commonly cited argument against engagement was invoked by Bush in 2002: “No nation can negotiate with terrorists, for there is no way to make peace with those whose only goal is death.” While that might be applicable in cases with absolute terrorists, it offers no merit when considering engagement with non-absolute terrorists. Even though indiscriminate killings of civilians are inhumane and deserve punishment, this should not hinder a government in the pursuit of peace to try to end violence by seeking a negotiated solution to the conflict. Guidelines on how to conduct such negotiations can be found in the book “Talking to Terrorists” by Jonathan Powell, who was directly involved in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. 

In many instances, state leaders give themselves the luxury of addressing PAGs exclusively through military campaigns at high humanitarian and financial costs and only recognize the need for political negotiations once they have failed. Why wait? Choosing to talk to actors who are (rightfully) accused by public opinion as terrorists always entails political risks. But considering the humanitarian cost of non-engagement, negotiations often represent the responsible way forward.