Hypocrisy is forgivable, but refusing to learn from past experiences is notby Jonathan Powell / October 2, 2014 / Leave a comment
The following is an edited extract from Jonathan Powell’s new book Talking to Terrorists, published by Bodley Head (£20)
Book tickets to see Jonathan in conversation with Prospect’s Editor Bronwen Maddox, where he will discuss how to end armed conflicts, and how governments should negotiate with terrorists.
“All terrorists, at the invitation of the government, end up with drinks in the Dorchester,” said Hugh Gaitskell, the former leader of the Labour Party. What he meant was that governments of all political colours and in all countries repeatedly say they will never talk to terrorist groups and yet they nearly always do so eventually, and in the end usually treat their leaders as statesmen.
From 1997 to 2007 I was the chief British negotiator on Northern Ireland. On the basis of that experience, when I left Downing Street in 2007 I proposed publicly that we should talk to the Taliban, to Hamas, and even to al-Qaeda. A Foreign Office spokesman said: “It is inconceivable that Her Majesty’s Government would ever seek to reach a mutually acceptable accommodation with a terrorist organisation like al-Qaeda.” Only a few years later, NATO countries are now talking to the Taliban, and the US and Israel have talked to Hamas, at least indirectly.
I don’t mind the hypocrisy of governments on the subject—that is part and parcel of politics—but I do mind the fact that they never seem to learn from past experiences, often with devastating consequences. Each time we meet a new terrorist group we start again from scratch, partly because governments change so regularly while the leaders of the terrorist groups tend to stay in place far longer.
As a result, when governments do engage with terrorists they almost always leave it far too late. General David Petraeus admits that in Iraq the US government delayed too long before talking to those “with American blood on their hands.” In the case of the Taliban, despite a long mating ritual, a…