Touchy Issue: Talking with ‘Terrorists’

Official Washington often exacerbates foreign conflicts by shoving them into misshapen narratives or treating them as good-guy-vs.-bad-guy morality plays, rather than political disputes that require mediation. The problem is particularly tricky with “terrorist” groups, writes ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller

I can’t believe that I’ve been outflanked on the Progressive Left by Fareed Zakaria! Hints of negotiation with the Islamic State (also called ISIS)!

In a Washington Post op-ed, Zararia cited Afghan negotiations with the Taliban and questioned whether similar talks might be useful even with ISIS: “After all, this is a particularly brutal and murderous group, but it is successful largely because it has tapped into the fears and rage of disempowered Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. That is a political grievance that can only be addressed politically.”

Afghan commandos demonstrate their skills for U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Camp Morehead, Afghanistan, April 23, 2012. (Defense Department photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Afghan commandos demonstrate their skills for U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Camp Morehead, Afghanistan, April 23, 2012. (Defense Department photo by D. Myles Cullen)

I’ve got a lot of respect for Zakaria, he generally works within the outer limits of the establishment envelope, just enough to nudge along a lot of establishment readers with new ideas without losing them. Those of us working often outside that envelope run the risk of losing readers, or never even gaining their ear in the first place.

Yet what is Zakaria saying? He makes the very important point that many of us have been making for a long time: we have to deal with political realities by talking to people we don’t like. But it’s good he’s now saying it, maybe the idea is going mainstream, at last.

Zakaria muddies the argument a bit, though, by employing the catch-all term “terrorists.” Of course terrorists exist, but the world has spent the last several decades (if not longer) in debating just what a terrorist is. All kinds of prestigious organizations including the UN have failed to come up with a consensus on the meaning of the word.

We end up having to revert to the old line that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In short, we like some terrorists, but not others, it all depends on whether they’re fighting for the “right” cause (our cause), or the “wrong” cause. It’s a subjective call.

So yes indeed we should talk to many of the groups that are conveniently termed “terrorists” in the West. Many of them in fact are far more than just terrorists, they are political groups with political aims that also deploy militia wings who use violence against their enemies.

The fighters for Palestinian liberation from Israeli occupation spring first and foremost to mind. But because they are fighting Israel they are automatically beyond the pale of any permissible discussion in the US. But the PLO, Fatah, and even Hamas are serious political organizations representing hard-core Palestinian aspirations, divided only by how to get there, and under whose leadership. Even thoughtful Israelis know that one day they will have to negotiate with them, indeed they have already done so behind the scenes.

Same goes for Hizballah in Lebanon, the paramount organization representing the Shi’ites who are the largest single religious group within Lebanese society. Hizballah helped bring the once-detested and oppressed Lebanese Shi’ites foursquare onto the political scene in Lebanon. If you want to deal with Lebanese Shi’a you have to talk to Hizballah, all Lebanese do. It has a huge official, public presence, while all the while maintaining formidable militia capabilities.

The list of movements goes on and on, groups that used guerrilla or terrorist operations as the way to put themselves on the political map. That includes many of the founders of Israel. Such guerrilla movements frequently evolve into mainly political movements: the PKK in Turkey, Sinn Fein in Ireland, Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Taliban, Chechens, Uighur liberation movements, the Muslim Brotherhood in various places, the Zapatistas in Mexico, FARC in Colombia, and other Latin American groups representing the “struggle” of disadvantaged classes or ethnic/religious groups.

And most states say they will never negotiate with their enemies but end up doing just that.

But Zakaria now raises into the intriguing possibility that we may eventually end up having to negotiate even with ISIS. (Never mind that we can’t even talk to Hamas yet.)

This question demands thoughtful analysis. To me the imperative of talking with a “terrorist” group stems from the degree of political legitimacy it possesses, measured by the degree of support it enjoys among the people it claims to represent. Most major “terrorist” groups do. But ISIS?

In the past I have been hesitant to describe ISIS as primarily a political movement, yet it is of course very political: it possesses an ideology, an info network, an agenda, crude administrative policies, and controls a certain (shifting) territory.

But how do we determine just whom ISIS represents? Maybe the many angry Sunni Iraqis who feel excluded from power in Shi’ite-dominated Baghdad? For sure. Yet many other Iraqi Sunnis may be equally disgruntled but for them the ISIS phenomenon is beyond the pale.

Or does ISIS represent angry fundamentalist Syrian Sunnis fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad? In part, yes, but ISIS is equally interested in destroying moderate Sunni militias. And we know ISIS also attracts some young alienated western Muslims who seek adventure for a nominally grand Islamic cause, but they are mainly transient adventurers and only number a few thousand.

So I’m not sure I’m yet willing to grant ISIS the coherence of a political movement that would call for negotiating with it. There is no denying that it plays off deep discontents and ideological yearnings for “true Islam” which can purportedly help bring a better political order to the Middle East. But is ISIS the movement to do it?

Nor am I convinced that ISIS represents a coherent large body of people who are truly dedicated and committed to the ISIS cause. If ISIS were to be decapitated, would the movement persist anyway, as would Hamas or Hizballah or the Taliban? Questionable.

That ISIS plays off huge widespread legitimate historical and contemporary grievances is beyond doubt. So did Boko Haram, at least originally. Certainly al-Shabab in Somalia does. But the sweeping nature of ISIS public violence and inflexible intolerance, its lack of recognition by any state including self-affirmed Islamic states (Pakistan, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.) robs it of serious legitimacy.

But who knows, maybe this is only an early stage of the ISIS movement. Maybe it will morph into something more coherent, more acceptable in the eyes of so many in the region. But I think it is still far from getting there, at least yet. It may gain some more battlefield successes, but that is not enough.

So I applaud Fareed Zakaria in explaining to the mainstream public the need for negotiation with “terrorist” organizations, most of whom represent deep-seated political causes. It’s just that I’m not sure ISIS falls into that category. But this issue is indeed worthy of further debate.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle)

13 comments for “Touchy Issue: Talking with ‘Terrorists’

  1. Jay
    July 14, 2015 at 08:18

    FZ one of those idiots who thought invading Iraq was the thing to do in 2003.

    Why would I pay attention to him?

    Why would I pay attention to someone who cites him as positive example of thinking?

    The USA has been working with, and talking to, terrorists for years. The Reagan administration was a big terrorism backer in central America.

  2. Jay
    July 13, 2015 at 21:00

    “I’ve got a lot of respect for Zakaria — he generally works within the outer limits of the establishment envelope — just enough to nudge along a lot of establishment readers with new ideas without losing them.”

    Give me a break.

  3. Joe Tedesky
    July 13, 2015 at 17:13

    Here’s an idea; how about President Obama starts talking to Putin of Russia, and Xi Jinping of China. Then have the three countries go in and straighten all of this out. Tell Israel and Saudi Arabia we’ll see ya later. Just a thought.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    July 13, 2015 at 15:17

    Yes, and there are plenty of opportunities to talk. We could talk to them while arranging the well documented medical treatment they receive in Israel. Or, we could talk to them while arranging weapons transfers from Libya. And, when they freely cross borders with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, some opportunity is bound to present itself. The same goes for Jordan, where we’ve provided some of them with training. Talking while coordinating those airstrikes which always seem to do some harm to Syrian assets would be another possibility It isn’t an unthinkable proposition. John McCain actually did it, and we’ve seen the pictures!

    In a country where an orange-haired bozo with a reality TV show can realistically be floated as a presidential candidate, and his likely opponent would be a ‘full spectrum dominatrix’, I suppose almost anything is possible. Some readers have no doubt studied military strategy though, and perhaps bothered to look at a map. They might suspect that ISIS would be a logistical impossibility under the circumstances without significant support. They might even speculate that ISIS could be defeated within 96 hours for the same logistical reasons. The contiguous territory occupied by ISIS is completely surrounded by US allies, except for Syria and Iran. Syria isn’t providing them with food and weapons, and neither is Iran. So who is? It’s a real mystery! Some suggest that their principle benefactor is none other than ‘El Hadj’ himself, Sheik Johnallabba Brennanalabaja. Perhaps he has resources we haven’t considered. But who am I to speculate? Fahrid Zakaria is obviously the ‘subject matter expert’ here. And so far, we have no reason to doubt CNN’s integrity…

  5. Uncle Sam's Grandma
    July 13, 2015 at 14:35

    Mr. Fuller,

    In your mind would the US negotiations involve the US taking any responsibility for the past century of US actions infringing on other people’s rights and sovereignty in the M-E — creating and funding various terrorist groups or installing right wing dictators to serve our imediate purposes until we eventually turn on them?

    Or would negotiating be more of the same old lies and denials we’ve seen from the US and West in general over the past century, blaming everything on the Mid-Easterners even though it was the West that invaded their lands to capture their resources and not vice versa?

  6. Abe
    July 13, 2015 at 13:57

    With the continuing appearance of articles by Graham Fuller and Paul Pillar, the touchy issue of whether the integrity of Consortium News has been compromised the CIA is indeed no longer worthy of further debate.

    The pods were in the basement:

    No longer a reader of Consortium News,

    • F. G. Sanford
      July 13, 2015 at 15:29

      Abe, try to look at the bright side. At least they’re not publishing articles by Fred Fleitz! Please, don’t leave us this way!

    • Joe Tedesky
      July 13, 2015 at 15:50

      Listen here Abe, you can change more from with in. Abe, often times your comments are more revealing than the article. This is not taking away anything from the authors on this site. No, instead you bring a panoramic view of whatever the issue is we are reading about here. So, chin up my friend I value what you have to say. Besides all that, I normally would not read a lengthy post, but I have grown to appreciate the information you provide.

      Full disclosure: I don’t know Abe but yes I called him my friend. I have read so many of his comments over time that I almost feel like I do know him, but I don’t. So, calling Abe my friend is just a friendly term I will use when referring to him. I would refer to many of you here that way as well. Just consider me a friendly person, that’s all.

    • Bubba
      July 13, 2015 at 17:49

      Abe, altough you have never heard about me i would like to thank you for all your previous comments. I’ve been a regular reader and i sincerly hope you decide to continue your contributions here.

      Often i have spend more time reading your posts then i have on the orginal article and it has triggered me multiple times to do some further research on my own.

      Because of my limited english (i’m from the netherlands) it wasn’t always easy to read but it has expanded my knowledge consideredly. Often enlighting previously unknown blind spots in my view of things.

      I’ve never posted here before (unfortunedly, compared to the informative level of the comments here, i have nothing to contribute) but i really just wanted to thank you in case this is good bye, though i really hope the opposite..

      Ps. I’ve always wondered how on earth you can compile so much information often in so little time.

    • Abe
      July 14, 2015 at 01:00

      The community of readers at Consortium News is socially, emotionally and politically intelligent. I share the spirit of camaraderie and the heartfelt desire for a more humane world.

      That’s why I am incredulous.

      Why on earth does editor Robert Parry continue to subject his readers to CIA talking points from Fuller and Pillar?

      ‘Tis truly baffling.

      I mean jeez, does the occasional unflattering remark about neocons garner an automatic pass around here?

      Under protest, I’m willing to confine my reading and comments to Mr. Parry’s articles and a few others.

      I’ll leave the Fuller and Pillar CIA clown college to fester in its own bilge.

      • Jerry
        July 14, 2015 at 14:06

        Glad your’e staying, Abe. I share the previous commenters’ great appreciation of your contributions. It wouldn’t be the same without you. I also share some of your incredulity.

Comments are closed.