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.

Advertisements

Senegal, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen

In early April, Senegalese President Macky Sall returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia and indicated that he would support the Kingdom’s military campaign in Yemen (find some basic context on the war here). Yesterday, Senegalese media reported that Sall will soon deploy 2,100 soldiers to Saudi Arabia. Senegalese Chief of Defense Mamadou Sow has already left for Saudi Arabia at the head of a delegation of senior officers, in order to make preparations and begin working with Saudi counterparts. Senegalese troops have served in Saudi Arabia before, namely during the Gulf War. Sall’s administration framed the upcoming deployment as a contribution to protecting Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity and defending Islam’s two holiest sites – indeed, it was interesting how strongly language of Muslim solidarity featured in the administration’s language, which also referenced Senegal’s membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and in the global Muslim community or umma. Sall’s message to the National Assembly, delivered yesterday by Foreign Affairs Minister Mankeur Ndiaye, can be read here in French.

The decision has occasioned some domestic criticism. A former chief of defense, retired General Mansour Seck, told a Senegalese newspaper that the deployment “could give us problems with our potential enemies, that is to say, terrorists.” Seck also said that the deployment will strain the country’s limited military budget and put some of the country’s best soldiers overseas at a delicate time. Opposition politician Mamadou Diop Decroix also criticized the decision, saying that Saudi Arabia “is not the victim of external aggression” and asserting that the National Assembly was not properly consulted. Even one member of the National Assembly who belongs to the president’s coalition said that “we must not exchange the lives of our soldiers for petrodollars,” alluding to the assumption that Senegal’s support in this military venture will ensure further Saudi investment in the country. So far, though, it looks like the deployment will proceed without major political obstacles.

US Drone Base in Ethiopia

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that “the Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen.” There are to be four bases, one each in Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti, and the Seychelles (we could add to this list a fifth, namely the CIA presence in Somalia, as reported by Jeremy Scahill of The Nation). Of these bases, as some readers know, two are not new at all: the base in Djibouti has been used by French and American forces for years, while drones have been operating from the Seychelles since at least 2009. The really new news for the greater Horn of Africa, then, is the base in Ethiopia.

The Washington Post gives a few more details:

One U.S. official said that there had been discussions about putting a drone base in Ethiopia for as long as four years, but that plan was delayed because “the Ethiopians were not all that jazzed.” Other officials said Ethiopia has become a valued counterterrorism partner because of threats posed by al-Shabab.

[…]

[A] former official said the United States relies on Ethiopian linguists to translate signals intercepts gathered by U.S. agencies monitoring calls and e-mails of al-Shabab members. The CIA and other agencies also employ Ethiopian informants who gather information from across the border.

The BBC adds that the base will be located in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, which borders Somalia and has a large Somali population.

The BBC emphasizes the backlash that drone strikes have caused in Yemen, but basing drones on the continent of Africa entails political risks there as well. As Wired‘s Danger Room notes, building bases in Africa undermines earlier US government assurances to African leaders that the US would not seek a larger military foothold on the continent. Other African countries looking at Ethiopia could begin to feel more uneasy about long-term US intentions in Africa. Within Somalia, drone strikes could kill major terrorists – but they could also hit civilians, inflaming anger against the US, weakening support for the US-backed Transitional Federal Government, and even driving recruits toward the Shabab rebel movement.

The new base could also negatively affect Washington’s relationship with Ethiopia. If the Ethiopians “were not all that jazzed” about drones for the past four years, they may become quite angry if drone strikes kill civilians or stir up anti-Ethiopian resentment in Somalia and in the Ogaden region. Ethiopia’s government is of course happy to receive US military assistance and to strengthen its relationship with Washington, but the negative aspects of a widening drone war may loom larger than the benefits after a while. The idea of Ethiopia playing Pakistan to Somalia’s Afghanistan, with all the tensions that relationship entails for the two countries and for the US, is a troubling scenario.

Basing drones in Ethiopia is a logical extension of current US policy in the region (and part of a larger projection of US power throughout the western Indian Ocean, as Danger Room writes). This policy continues to carry significant risks, however, not only of causing a backlash inside Somalia but also of straining relations between the US and various African governments, starting with Ethiopia.

Africa Blog Roundup: Drones and Yemen, Somalia Pirates, USAID, and More

Yemen (I know Yemen is not in Africa, but what happens there is relevant to what happens in the Horn): Aaron Zelin and Gregory Johnsen discuss the advantages and disadvantages of conducting drone strikes against AQAP in Yemen. Gregory:

The idea that the US can carry out a war in Yemen, even a remote controlled one, and not pay the price for it is foolish. If the US treats the country like a war zone it will get a war. There is, simply put, no magic missile solution to the problem of AQAP in Yemen.

Somalia: Modern Day Pirate Tales looks at a record ransom paid to Somali pirates, and Foreign Policy has a photo essay on anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden.

South Africa: Matthew Tostevin covers South Africa’s application to join the BRICs.

Nigeria: Shelby Grossman points out some interesting details about the arms shipment seized in Nigeria last month.

USAID: The Project on Middle East Democracy flags an article at the Center for Strategic and International Studies “describing the decline of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) over the past four administrations.”

Colonialism: Chris Blattman, Joshua Keating, and Olumide Abimbola discuss the relative merits of British colonialism.

Feel free to use this as an open thread.

Sunday Africa Blog Roundup: AQIM, AQAP, US Mid-Terms and Africa

AQIM: Kal has some sweet maps.

AQAP: Gregory Johnsen writes on Yemen and the package bomb scare. Joshua Keating has more.

US Midterms and Africa: G. Pascal Zachary says a Republican-controlled House of Representatives might pay more attention to Africa.

West African Elections: Africa Monitor and Reuters Africa Blog look at the elections in Guinea and Ivory Coast.

Ethiopia/Sudan/Kenya: Mark Leon Goldberg at UN Dispatch writes about IGAD and Sudanese President Omar al Bashir.

I leave you with this Al Jazeera Talk video on an Arabic institute in Edo State, eastern Nigeria:

Saturday Links: West African Elections, Bin Laden and France, Somalia PM Crisis, Etc.

West Africa: International Crisis Group looks at upcoming elections in Guinea and Ivory Coast, arguing that “the stakes are simply too high” in many contests in West Africa. Because “there are good grounds for contestants to believe that if they lose they, and perhaps their whole community, may be excluded from power for a generation,” elections all too often result in civil conflict.

VOA has more on the elections in Ivory Coast.

Niger: A vote on a proposed constitution this Monday faces boycotts and skepticism (via Tommy Miles).
Central African Republic: Another set of electoral difficulties here. Reuters reports that “rebel groups in Central African Republic are blocking early preparations for a presidential election due in January, casting doubt on whether the latest target date for the poll can hold.”

France: Andrew Lebovich looks at Osama bin Laden’s new tape threatening France, which included statements on recent kidnappings in Niger.

Somalia: UN Special Envoy Augustine Mahiga met with Somali leaders in the Transitional Federal Government to help resolve a struggle over the appointment of a new prime minister.

US policy in Africa/Middle East: The Obama administration has waived requirements in the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act and allowed the military to continue aid to Chad, Sudan, DRC, and Yemen.

South Africa: The Christian Science Monitor reports on the African Leadership Academy’s efforts to send young Africans to American and European universities.

What are you reading this weekend?

Sunday Africa Blog Roundup: Sudan, Ethiopia, Qat, Western Sahara, and More

Sudan: Dipnote (the State Department’s blog) posts Special Envoy Scott Gration’s recent remarks in Washington on US diplomatic efforts with Sudan.

Ethiopia: Barry Malone of Reuters Africa Blog asks what comes next for recently freed political activist Birtukan Mideksa.

Somalia: Mogadishuman reports on Islamists’ campaigns against Qat.

DRC: Chris Albon runs the idea of a “humanitarian use of force” in the DRC through the matrix of the Powell Doctrine.

Sahel: Kal writes about how governments in the Sahel play the “terrorism card” and discusses other developments in the region.

Western Sahara: At Africa Monitor, Drew Hinshaw says, “Dormant Western Sahara Threatens to Heat Up.”

While UN envoys have been coaxing Saharan rebels and Moroccan royals to the table, human rights conditions in refugee camps along the Algerian border have deterioatated. The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies has released at least two reports documenting how those camps have become recruitment targets for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – a terrorist organization and crime syndicate which benefits from any conflict from Morocco and Algeria, the two powerhouses of the Saharan region and with the most at stake in the region’s camapign against lawlessness.

It’s going to take more than a third round of informal chats, [former UN spokesman Abdel Hamide] Siyyame says, to bend Morocco and Polisario, not to mention Algeria and Mauritania (which has intermittently attempted to annex parts of Western Sahara), into a compromise.

“There must be a third party that can propose a serious, comprehensive solution to bring everybody to the negotiation table,” he said.

Yemen: Inside Islam writes on rap in Yemen.

Nowadays, Yemen is often associated with a growing Al-Qaeda movement and seen to be a breeding ground for terrorism. Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric, has become an example not only of the growing terrorist influence in Yemen but also in America. However, this is obviously not all there is to Yemen, just as it is not all there is to Islam. Many Muslims artists have used hip-hop and rap to relay messages of change and peace. While one may not think of rap in the context of Yemen,  this needs to change. Yemeni-American Hagage “AJ” Masaed, has been rapping for many years and is using this medium to reach the younger generation and to counter extremist messages.

Algeria: Inside Islam also has a cool post on women soccer fans in North Africa.

I leave you with two more: Africa Is A Country posts on deaths of asylum seekers in the UK, and Chris Blattman asks why more development economics studies focus on Latin America than on Africa.