Negotiations with terrorists have always been difficult ground. From hardline stances against it, political posturing by the likes of President George W. Bush and others, and the sonorous cries of largely conservative groups from many western nations deriding the practice it’s easy to think that negotiations do not occur at all. This paper will explore past historical reference points in which the decision was made whether or not to negotiate with terrorists, and the resultant consequences, it will also seek to answer the question as to whether, as the ‘No Negotiations’ rule of politicians is helpful when answering the threat of terrorism.
Using Turkey and its Kurdish question as our first example, as recently as 2013 Erdo?an and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had brokered a tenuous cease fire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), however this ceasefire only lasted approximately twenty-seven months (Hakyemez 2017). One trait that makes this process stand apart from what one might call traditional negotiations with terrorists is the fact that these negotiations were considered open whereas many previous examples of negotiations are only revealed after they’ve borne fruit, that crossing the line of non-negotiation was in fact productive for the state. Although the ‘non-negotiation’ stances of many nations against terrorism is a form of political posturing, the opposite can hold true which may have been the case during the 2013-2015 ceasefire. Open talks meant stronger support for the AKP government and particularly Erdo?an himself (Hakyemez 2017). Perhaps ironically, covert talks have a bit more honesty to them as their very concealed nature means that the actors involved are more likely negotiating peace for peace’s sake rather than trying to score political points with the electorate. Further complications include the fact that the PKK is at present a multinational movement, with a strong presence in not only Turkey but Syria and Iraq as well. Other complications include the growing popularity of splinter groups within the PKK these groups are usually more radical and violent, Turkey previously had this problem regarding the inherent political sluggishness of parliamentary governance but with the AKP holding majority power in parliament this is no longer the case (Hakyemez 2017).
The struggle of the Irish Republican Army is in many ways like the PKK, both are protracted social struggles focused more on national identity than religion, of course a consequence of British influence however meant that many protestants would remain loyal to the UK, and many Catholics would be opposed and in line with the ideology of the IRA. Jonathan Powell writes of his experience in the negotiations with the IRA in the latter parts of the 90’s and in his accounts, he discusses a time in where he would make frequent trips into Ireland to meet with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin (Powell 2015). This is a step Turkey has yet to take as doing so would legitimize Kurdish territory, instead all negotiations between Turkey and the PKK has been through the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan and all meetings have been done firmly in Turkish territory. This is a step that Powell writes is required if one is to make peace or build trust (Powell 2015). One thing that Turkey and the PKK lacks however is a mutually hurting stalemate (Powell 2015). In the Troubles, Powell speaks to the fact that the British eventually knew they would never be able to completely annihilate the IRA, likewise the IRA soon learned they could continue the fight but never fully expel the British Government (2015). Regarding the PKK, Turkey still has aspirations of subsuming the Kurdish people back into the fold albeit slightly differently than their original one Turkey vision as detailed in their negotiations (Hakyemez 2017). The PKK meanwhile has carved out space for themselves in semi-autonomous regions within both Syria and Iraq cementing a foothold in the fight for an independent Kurdistan. However, despite a readiness for independence from both those countries, the threat of Turkey to the north makes such independence impossible, if the PKK were able to become a sovereign nation it would have to fight a conventional war and of course unlike the resilience of a terrorist group it would be subsumed back into Turkey, Iraq, or Syria and we would return to the status quo. Only when Turkey realizes it cannot annihilate or reintegrate the Kurds and that an independent Kurdistan is the only way solution can the AKP utilize this to their advantage in negotiations and find benefits perhaps it hadn’t considered in fostering a positive relationship with an independent Kurdistan rather than the present animosity. The PKK must also realize that an independent Kurdistan cannot survive without Turkey’s approval regardless of where its land comes from. Only then can negotiations begin from a point of understanding that the current situation is both unsolvable militarily and harmful to both sides.
In conclusion, Powell is largely correct in his assumption that terrorist groups who enjoy widespread political support can never truly be stamped out and must be negotiated with (2015). However, both the Kurdish and Irish conflicts are largely defined as secular or mostly nationalistically motivated movements. The idea of negotiation does not extend so easily to religiously motivated groups, as evidenced by comments made by the Afghan Ambassador to the UN Mahmoud Saikal regarding recent attacks by the Taliban in Kabul:
” ‘There are two categories of Taliban: One is the reconcilable elements who are in touch with us, who are talking to us, and one is the irreconcilable,’ Saikal said. ‘The irreconcilables and those who have chosen to fight, we need to fight. We need to fight against them, we need to have the capability to withstand against them and to defend our people,’ ” (Rampton; Landay 2018).
Lastly, does the “No Negotiations” rule hinder or help in curbing terrorism? Fears that too eager a willingness to negotiate can be construed as weakness is reasonable, taking this into account with the more earnest nature of covert negotiation the rule is advantageous and allows for a more powerful position on the side of the nation, state, or organization when negotiations take place regardless (Powell 2015). Likewise, terrorism is rooted in frustration, many organizations want to negotiate and use terrorism to make clear the position of strength they’re speaking from. Thus, the rule is largely effective as a publicity stunt it emphasizes the position of strength the state speaks from despite the fact the rule is frequently broken and for good reason.