Amplifying and Extending Martha Crenshaw’s Recommendation for Peace Talks with al-Qaida and the Islamic State

In September, Stanford’s Martha Crenshaw – a longtime expert on terrorism – published an essay in Foreign Policy arguing that the time has come for peace talks with al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The idea of talks is not new, but it is important.

Here is a key excerpt:

Given jihadis’ adaptability and diffusion, options to combat them with force are limited. One alternative is to try to solve the root causes of the problem by removing the conditions that make jihad attractive. But even if the multiple political, economic, and social causes of violence could be identified, addressing them is a costly endeavor requiring a good deal of patience and persistence. The current U.S. administration seems to have little of either.

[…]

The bottom line is that a military defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and even in Iraq would not mean the end of terrorism and extremism. The Islamic State has vowed to continue its struggle and has called for attacks in the West. And al Qaeda and its network of allies stand to benefit from the downfall of their preeminent rival in the Middle East. Most of the underlying problems that led to the ascendance of jihadi organizations, meanwhile, persist. There is no simple answer to dealing with such a complex, expansive, and volatile threat. But it is worth considering all options, including negotiations with selected parties.

From what I can tell, the piece did not get much attention, but the comments it did get ran strongly in a negative/critical direction (these include comments on the article itself, although these comments are barely worth reading, and comments on Twitter). As someone in broad agreement with Crenshaw, I’d like to respond to some of the criticisms and then flesh out what talks might entail – because my own critique of Crenshaw’s piece is that it does not give enough detail about what talks would look like.

One kind of criticism was faux-shocked dismissiveness. That kind of criticism, I think, is barely worth engaging; seventeen years into the War on Terror, the burden should be on proponents of the status quo to defend it. Unorthodox ideas deserve, at the least, a fair hearing and a reasoned rebuttal.

Another kind of criticism was the argument that talks “would bestow legitimacy on groups that the vast majority of locals abhor” and that it is “far better to address the deep grievances that drive people to join them in the first place.” But Crenshaw has already pointed out – and the evidence is firmly on her side – that “address[ing] deep grievances” is difficult in analytical terms, costly in financial and military terms, and requires patience in terms of timelines, policy continuity, and political will. Crenshaw is talking about policy options predicated on the obvious likelihood that “deep grievances” will not go away any time soon.

The idea of “legitimacy” is also backwards, on multiple levels. If one wants to be a gritty realist, then legitimacy does not matter – what matters is the advancement of core interests. At present, I would argue, the War on Terror is an unsustainable drain on resources and an unsuccessful venture with dim prospects for a turnaround. Severe conflicts around the world have not been remedied through the War on Terror framework, and that framework has in some cases caused and/or exacerbated conflict.

If one wants to talk about legitimacy, though, or about moral standing, then I would actually argue that the United States and other Western powers could increase their legitimacy by displaying a willingness to talk to jihadists. First of all, we would show that we are unafraid of hearing anyone’s perspective, including perspectives that are sharply critical of American/Western foreign policy. We would show that we are confident enough in our own moral stature that we will meet with anyone, any time, and see whether we have any common ground with them.

Second, an offer to talk would go a long ways toward undercutting jihadists’ self-presentation as a revolutionary, anti-systemic force in the contemporary world. Under current policy, by insisting that jihadists are and must be outside of all mainstream politics, the U.S. ends up inadvertently reinforcing jihadists’ image as revolutionary actors, and even inadvertently reinforcing their romantic appeal to some of their recruits. If, instead, we offered to negotiate with them, we could in effect say, “You are no different than other violent actors who have come before you. We see nothing special about you. Whenever you want to talk, we will talk, and until you are ready to make peace we will fight you, whether we are talking or not.”

Another line of criticism toward Crenshaw’s argument came from International Crisis Group’s Sam Heller. In a Twitter thread, Heller fixated on Crenshaw’s skepticism toward military solutions – but Heller ultimately didn’t take a clear position on whether to negotiate or not, and so he just ended up muddying the waters. He concluded, “Military force alone can’t deliver holistic, lasting solutions. But it seems incorrect to dismiss it totally.” Heller misrepresents Crenshaw’s position here; she does not “dismiss [military force] totally,” but rather says essentially what Heller says about it. Again, Heller’s phrasing is that “military force alone can’t deliver holistic, lasting solutions”; Crenshaw’s phrasing is that “more often than not, moreover, outside intervention ends an immediate crisis but leaves unresolved or even exacerbates the underlying problems that brought it about.” Heller is right, in his thread, to question the high number Crenshaw gives for the Islamic State’s remaining fighters in Iraq, but none of the issues he raises make much of a dent in her core argument.

My own take on Crenshaw’s piece is broad agreement, but also a desire for a more precise articulation of what negotiations might look like. So it’s worth disaggregating the idea of negotiations and offering a few possibilities:

  1. Direct negotiations between the United States and jihadists with the aim of forestalling further attacks on the United States.
  2. U.S. (or European, etc.) rhetorical and logistical support for negotiations between another government and that country’s jihadists.
  3. U.S. (or French, British, etc.) non-interference in efforts by another government to negotiate with that country’s jihadists.
  4. U.S. pressure on another government to turn that government’s secret deals with jihadists into public negotiations/agreements.

Once you disaggregate the proposal, it becomes easier to discuss, evaluate, and implement. So, in terms of #1, I think that it would be a good idea to appoint a U.S. Special Envoy for Non-State Actors (and to proclaim a willingness to talk with anyone, any time). But I actually think the most room for progress right now is with #2 and #3. There are voices out there who favor negotiations between their own governments and jihadists, but whose proposals have been essentially shot down by Western governments (this was the case when France publicly dismissed Malian civil society calls for the Malian government to negotiate with Malian jihadists).

I think too that more explicit Western support for negotiations could help with #4. If we support third-party negotiations or at least don’t stand in the way, that would signal to governments who already deal with jihadists that it’s time to bring those deals out into the open. Openness, in turn, would allow publics to weigh in and would make geopolitics and local politics more transparent.

After all, it’s one thing for analysts to debate “whether we should negotiate with jihadists” – but it’s another thing to really grapple with the policy ramifications of something like the Associated Press article on Yemen from this August. That article asserted the existence of deals between the Saudi and Emirati governments on the one side, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula on the other. The same article asserted that “key participants in the pacts said the U.S. was aware of the arrangements and held off on any drone strikes.” So let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the United States and its entirely wholesome partners are locked in a battle of good and evil with jihadists. In the real world, politics is a mess and neither we nor are partners are as wholesome as one would like. In that world, do you prefer secret deals or public deals? I would take the latter.

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