Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

An effective way of responding to external interference in relation to terrorism

( Created date: 09-Oct-2014 )

In his address to the UN General Assembly last month Barack Obama, the most cerebral of modern US presidents, said of Islamic State (Isis): “No god condones their terror. No grievance justifies their action. There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” Having watched footage of Isis terrorists serially shooting captured Shia soldiers off a wooden jetty that quickly turns red and slippery with blood, one cannot imagine that there is much to talk about.
Not so, according to former Blairite apparatchik Jonathan Powell in Talking to Terrorists. His messianic desire to talk to terrorists through his NGO Inter Mediate has plenty of top brass support among the British elite, as can be seen from the frequent grovelling references to Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5. This great eminence is of the view, as revealed in her 2011 BBC Reith Lectures, that western intelligence should consider “talking to al-Qaeda”. About what, one would like to know? Surrendering Andalusia to a caliphate?
Although some might ascribe these sentiments to the liberal decadence one often encounters in the British establishment, this would be a mistake. In fact, it is a kind of soft, post-imperial conceit in which the “lessons” of Northern Ireland are egregiously transposed on to any number of global conflicts, while bringing endless opportunities for exotic, moralising travel for the erstwhile Irish interlocutors. In a passage that is difficult to parody, Powell crops up in a jungle clearing with former IRA bomber Gerard Kelly, to be greeted by guerrillas who proudly produce his manual on the Northern Irish peace process. Britain may not be able to muster much of a force to bomb Islamic State, but like little Ireland or Norway, we can flood the world with know-it all diplomats and NGOs to deal with the aftermath.
This is not to say that Powell’s book has no merits. Of course, intelligence officers should have back channels to our enemies and diplomats should try to find common ground to resolve violent conflicts. Powell, a former chief of staff to Tony Blair, rightly says that governments have always negotiated with those they publicly excoriate, before accepting Jomo Kenyatta or Nelson Mandela as statesmen, or indeed Martin McGuinness as an amiable fly fisherman in a cardigan. That might be connected to the justice of the cause, especially if racial exclusion is involved, or in the latter case because the IRA scaled back its demands because of adverse military realities. This “model” settlement in Northern Ireland also entailed sacrificing such moderate voices as David Trimble and the SDLP by empowering extremes which persist on Republican housing estates. Messy inconveniences like the relatives of victims of terrorism have to marginalised too, says our cupid-curled Machiavelli.
Powell’s book explicitly aspires to being an indispensable primer for tyro diplomats and as such has more value than Harold Nicolson’s Diplomacy: A Basic Guide, first published in 1939, and disbursed as the Foreign Office manual to Powell’s own class of 1979. As a self-styled “practitioner” rather than academic theorist, Powell has interesting things to say about the mechanics of back channels and negotiations, memorably described by Shimon Peres as looking for light without the aid of a tunnel. Sometimes Powell’s spooky enthusiasm for clandestine meetings in luxury hotels does not extend to the reader who has to suffer wearisome pages of which Norwegian met who via whom in El Salvador.
The key seems to be encouraging players to switch from rhetorical hyperventilation (especially on the deeper causes of conflicts) to parsing detailed written propositions, while the intermediaries suppress their own desire to hit people, as Powell nearly did a truculent Ulster Loyalist. Deliberately exhausting the parties through marathon “hot house” sessions incentivises agreement, as does allowing them to explore their human sides — Gerry Adams and McGuinness skateboarded with the Blair children in the gardens of 10 Downing Street. According to a 2008 interview, wisely omitted in this book, Powell said he would have even extended that courtesy to “a repentant bin Laden”. A US Navy Seal put a couple of rounds in the latter’s head three years later, precluding this bizarre flight of fantasy.
Not all states are so enamored of the British way of de-escalating terrorist conflicts through talking. President Obama prefers serial assassination by targeted drone strikes in Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen, even when this involves killing US nationals, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, the inciter-in-chief of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. President Putin would like to pursue Chechen terrorists “into the s***house” to exterminate them. President Xi Jinping of China has vowed to bring an “iron fist” down on Uighur separatists, who have used bombs and knives to attack Han Chinese in Xinjiang, where after perfunctory public trials, batches of suspects are executed. Of course, the British elite won’t say boo to these three very different leaders of great powers, preferring to visit its moral fervour on much smaller nations.
Take Sri Lanka. After decades of fruitless negotiations, the Rajapaksa government had had enough of the Tamil Tigers’ suicide bombings (70,000 dead in 30 years) and its attempts to cut off water supplies to the Sinhalese majority. With military aid from Iran, India, Pakistan, China and Israel, Sri Lanka used crushing force to eliminate the Tamil Tigers on a remote beach. In one of the many omissions in this book, Powell does not pause to ponder why the ideological leader of the Tigers, Anton Balasingham and his ghastly Australian wife Adele, were allowed to live in the UK throughout the conflict. Or why, for that matter, is Cricklewood home to leaders of the Algerian Salafist movement that killed 200,000 people in the 1990s?
For one of the in-built advantages that Britain has in the game of talking to terrorists is that our feckless governments have allowed so many of them to settle here. One book that does not figure in Powell’s bibliography is Rajiva Wijesinha’s 'The Best of British Bluff', in which this smart Sinhalese intellectual mocks British interference in his nation’s affairs. Powell’s book appears too late to deal with the Israeli way of talking to terrorists, via a daily tally of air strikes on Gaza that exceeds all those carried out in Iraq and Syria in the past six weeks. The men who kidnapped three Jewish boys have also been assassinated. But Jonathan Powell will live in hope and Baroness Manningham-Buller and her ilk will still be eager to talk to al-Qaeda and its Islamic State progeny. About what, one still asks?
Michael Burleigh is an author of numerous books including Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (Harper Collins)
Times 4 Oct 2014


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