Negotiating with Terrorists (Part 1)

PODCAST | ep7 | with Annette Idler, Jytte Klausen, and Fredrik Logevall

Pulling out of Afghanistan was the top foreign policy event of 2021. Perhaps overlooked in the collective relief to be done with this twenty-year war is the fact that the US had to negotiate with terrorists to get there. In fact, it ceded an entire country to a violent, extremist group. Throughout history, leaders—including those from the US—have vowed never to negotiate with terrorists, but then reverse course. In this two-part episode, three scholars of history, international relations, and foreign policy discuss historic examples and the complexities of negotiating with violent—even murderous—groups.

Collage of the three guest speakers: Annette Idler, Fredrik Logevall, and Jytte Klausen

Listen to episode #7 (24:56) by clicking the play button below:


Part 1 explores the caveats of labeling a group “terrorist.” Jytte Klausen explains the importance of having an internationally recognized designation, while Annette Idler notes that labels can be used for political reasons such as to garner aid or rally public support. Using Indochina and the Viet Cong as examples, Fred Logevall sheds light on early terrorist tactics. Sometimes violent groups evolve into conventional political actors, as did Sinn Fein, the political faction of the IRA, or the FARC in Colombia. (A few days after this recording the Biden Administration took FARC off the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations because it no longer engages in violence.) 

From Nixon, Reagan, and Thatcher to leaders in Spain, Turkey, and China: many heads of state have taken an absolutist position against working with violent groups, only to renege on that promise later. Our scholars discuss why leaders change their minds, and how timing can be a critical factor in determining when conditions are ripe for productive talks.

Part 2 takes up the questions of how to negotiate with terrorists without legitimizing their methods or ideology, and what happens to a nation’s reputation when they give in, give up, or back down in the face of extremist groups.


Erin Goodman, Director, Weatherhead Scholars Program.


Annette Idler, Weatherhead Center Visiting Scholar, Weatherhead Scholars Program. Director, Global Security Programme, Pembroke College, Oxford University. 

Jytte Klausen, Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation, Brandeis University.  

Fredrik Logevall, Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate. Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; Professor of History, Department of History, Harvard University. 


Michelle Nicholasen, Editor and Content Producer, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

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ERIN GOODMAN: Welcome to the Epicenter podcast from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. I'm your host, Erin Goodman, Director of the Weatherhead Scholars Program. This is the first of a two-part episode about the contentious practice of negotiating with violent groups. Call them terrorists, insurgents, rebels, non-state armed actors, what they have in common is that they're organized groups that use violent tactics to achieve their political goals. 
Some examples of such groups are al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Sinn Fein, the FARC in Colombia, ETA in Spain, and the Taliban. The motivations for negotiating with these groups are complex as are the motivations for maintaining a hard line against doing so. There's a lot at stake, not just for the perception of national resolve but also for ordinary people who bear the brunt of violence. 

Top of mind is the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan. After an 18-year effort to eradicate the Taliban, the US withdrew under a negotiated deal admitting defeat to a violent terrorist group. In fact, it ceded an entire country to the Taliban. The purpose of today's episode is to give historical context to this major US foreign policy decision and to wrestle with the trade-offs and risks of engaging diplomatically with groups that use violence to achieve their political goals. 

We've invited three scholars to this conversation, Annette Idler is a visiting scholar in the Weatherhead Scholars Program and director of the Global Security Programme and founder of the Changing Character of Conflict Platform at Oxford. She's conducted extensive fieldwork in war-torn countries and crisis-affected borderlands, including Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Myanmar. Her recent co-edited book, Transforming the War on Drugs was published last month. 

Jytte Klausen is Lawrence A. Lien Professor of International Cooperation at Brandeis University. She's the founder of the Western Jihadism Project which studies Western violent extremists associated with al-Qaeda and is an author and regular contributor to US and international media. Her new book is titled Western Jihadism A 30-year History. 

Fredrik Logeval is the Laurence Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government and Professor of History at Harvard University. He's the author or editor of 10 books, most recently, JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, and the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam. . Welcome, everyone. 

ERIN GOODMAN: Let's begin by discussing the caveats of labeling groups in such a way that prohibits diplomacy or negotiation. We have many labels for these groups, terrorists, communists, insurgents, guerrillas, rebels. We might even try to label the organized mob that stormed the US Capitol last January. What are the pros and cons of categorizing violent groups in this way? Let's start with you, Annette. 

ANNETTE IDLER: Thanks. Thanks a lot for the introduction. While I would say that such labels are important with regard to legal implications of the actions by certain groups, also the extent to which states provide foreign aid, but they can also easily be misleading and they are often used for political purposes. They are also imposed upon those groups. They would hardly consider themselves, for example, a terrorist group. 

So this has been the case with the Colombian FARC, for example. For a long time, analysts have focused on the so-called narco-terrorist, nexus in the country, the terrorist-labeled actors themselves and the repertoire of terrorism. Now this may be explained by the fact that terrorism became important as a label, and rather than a method and was hardly linked to the root causes of a conflict. In the context of the global war on terror, attracting funds and attention from outside the country was very effective by referring to the terrorist threat emanating from the guerrillas. 

So let me just explain four factors that I think are quite useful to understand or to think about groups that are labeled as terrorists that I've also written about. So first of all, terrorism implies the use of violence against civilians rather than against state forces or economic assets. And that's a form of intimidation that generates fear among the population. It's employed to impact politically and coercively on the enemy. And therefore, also governments can use terrorist tactics. 

And secondly, actors who use terrorism as a military tactic, they promote political change or they claim to promote political change in line with their strategic goals. So it's a voluntary option that they take in a certain moment. And then third, terrorism as a tactic is often used by groups who believe that they represent the interests of groups that are larger than their own members. So they think their fight is some sort of avant-garde to achieve a political transformation. 

And actually, often large parts of the population regard those actors, political actors, and support the method of terrorism even because they think that might be the only viable way to induce political change. And that's why we have this saying that one person's terrorist is somebody else's freedom fighter. And these are diverging perceptions in a way that have to be taken into account. 

And then finally also, just to mention the fourth point, a thing that is important to think about is that the political objectives that these actors strive for, they are often also aspired to by other social and political actors who would explicitly reject violence and concentrate their activities on non-violent means. 

ERIN GOODMAN: Thanks Annette. Would anyone else like to comment on this, Jytte? 

JYTTE KLAUSEN: Sure, yes, I do not disagree that the label terrorism is being used and manipulated for political reasons. I would say though that we have a pretty good general understanding of what terrorism is. Terrorism uses the spectacular violence for the purpose of sending a message and undermining the resolve of the enemy. It is often said that terrorism is a tactic and it's a rational means to an objective and we shouldn't conflate the means with the objective. 

Sometimes I find that discussion of labels misleading. The best example I think is that of a productive use of the label has been the UN Security Council's development of an international legal framework for addressing al-Qaeda and Daesh at the Islamic State through originally a resolution passed immediately after the 9-11 attacks. And in fact, the UN Security Council's approach to developing international listings for terrorist organizations and designation of certain individuals as terrorist began already after the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam where the victims overwhelmingly were not Americans but locals. 

We often forget that global terrorism really is global and the victims, even though as we feel still the sting of the 9-11 attacks, overwhelmingly the victims have been locals. And this really is a global fight. And in the absence of creating an international legal framework for the designation of terrorist groups, this fight would have been much, much, much more difficult. 

The real issue today that we face now is that some of the means for that international approach to fighting against and combatting global terrorism are no longer effective because financial transactions don't go through banks anymore. They go through Bitcoin and all sorts of informal routes that are really the regime that has been in place for 20 years now doesn't really work for. 

But I just want to point out that there are some positive examples of the use of the label to create a legal framework that binds member states of the UN Security Council to coordinate their actions. And this has been one of the examples of where the UN has led the way. UN often gets highly criticized for its inefficiencies and all of that. 

But this is actually, even today, the intelligence that we have about al-Qaeda's global reach and the Islamic State. Actually, if you go to the UN Security Council's analysis team, they produced some of the very best, what we call public intelligence. And that has been really, I think it's very important to acknowledge that contribution. 

FREDRIK LOGEVAL: I guess I would just say that from a government's perspective, some such labeling is necessary. If you're going to devise a strategy, you need to know what kind of entity are we dealing with here? How should we fashion a response? Is this, for example, a group that is wholly dedicated to combating a given government within a given state? In which case, we could call this an insurgency. 
A great example obviously would be for, say, South Vietnam. Insurgency develops in the late 1950s. And what's the NLF with of course direction from Hanoi, interesting situation, what it's about is overthrowing ultimately the South Vietnamese government. So that's an insurgency willing the Viet Cong, as it became known, was willing to engage in terrorist activity. But it's a different entity than others we might think about which are not confined to the borders of a given state. 

ERIN GOODMAN: I was thinking maybe it was the Vietnam War that introduced the public at large and certainly Americans to the concept of terrorism. It's interesting how our associations have changed since then. 

FREDRIK LOGEVAL: Yeah. It's a good point. And I suppose you would actually go back a little bit further. And I've written about this, that is to say the French in Indochina were very quick, beginning really in 1946. And there are probably other early examples we can think of when we can go back. Actually as I think about this, we can go back to various other episodes prior to the war in other places. 
if we confine this to Indochina, to Vietnam, it's pretty interesting that the French government labeled what was then known as the Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary organization as a terrorist organization. And indeed, they engaged in those kinds of tactics. For example, the Viet Minh would throw a grenade into a crowded movie theater that was frequented mostly by French colonists in Indochina, assassination schemes and so on. 

So it's there in the Indochina case before the Americans arrived. It's there, when the Americans come on the scene. And then as you say, we've had lots of examples, some of which I'm sure we'll discuss today in the years since. 

ERIN GOODMAN: Thanks, Fred. And I'd like to come back to Vietnam in the second part of our conversation. Before we move on to the next question, I'd like to acknowledge that nation states also use violence to achieve their foreign policy goals. This is fairly widely accepted in the international system. Having said that, we know that all states have faced the dilemma of deciding whether to engage with violent, even murderous groups. And all leaders at some point declare they will never negotiate with these entities. But then most do so. Why do states say they won't and then break that self-imposed restriction? Annette? 

ANNETTE IDLER: Thanks. What I would say that first of all, we need to distinguish between different types of negotiations. So the global security program at Oxford, for example, we are collaborating with the UN on understanding, analyzing, and also engaging non-state armed groups. And there are two different purposes, one is for humanitarian purposes, for example, to get access in humanitarian assistance to populations in need. And then the other one is for political purpose, where you can say that is about transforming conflict or ending violence. 

So in the latter case, I think one important aspect is that perspectives can change over time. One could even argue that it's not a question of whether to negotiate, but actually when to negotiate. And one thing here to keep in mind is what Jonathan Powell, who was involved in the Northern Ireland negotiations, he has written about. He says that talking to terrorists is not the same as agreeing with terrorists, if we go back to using that label. 

So there's often this idea that when we talk to these groups, it would be some sort of appeasement. It gives legitimacy, or that it would reward bad behavior. But actually we also need to think about the alternatives. And what they mean for people on the ground, something that Jytte already mentioned. 
So if we look at previous studies, only 10.2% of the armed conflicts between 1980 and 2014 ended after a military victory. The majority of the armed conflicts ended through some sort of negotiated political process. And other studies show that between 1968 and 2006, 43% of 648 studied terrorist groups ended their terrorist activity after entering a non-violent political process. So there was either an inclusive political agreement that then created the condition of political participation or there was some sort of engagement with the other side. 

Of course, policing and intelligence work is also important. So in 40% of the cases, that was the way through which the conflict was ended. But it was only in very few cases, through military victory. Now one problem I would say is that those who are affected by the violence are not necessarily the ones who take the decision on the political process. So this was quite striking in the case of the peace agreement in Colombia. 

Colombia held a plebiscite five years ago on whether people would agree with signing peace with the FARC. And the first time it was actually narrowly rejected and was only passed through Congress after some modifications. Now the map, if you look at the map of how people voted, showed that those in marginalized communities in the war-affected regions, where I also conducted my fieldwork, mainly were in favor of the peace agreement. So you could interpret that as people wanting to stop the violence. 

And against this many voters in the big cities who were no longer directly affected by the violence voted against this with many claiming that we should not negotiate with what they consider terrorists. So perceptions and experiences matter a lot. But then going back to thinking through, yeah, when to negotiate. As I said, I think it's more a question of when. There are different schools of thought who have written about that, about the relationships between the parties, the substance of the proposal. 
And then this other point, which is the ripeness, the timing. When does it become relevant? So Zartman, he refers to the mutually hurting stalemate, that you should basically negotiate once both parties perceive that there is a mutually hurting stalemate which basically is of course a subjective matter. It can be perceived at any point in a conflict in a situation that both sides simply think there is no way out other than negotiating. 

And when this perception is there, then according to that school of thought, then there the conflict is ripe for resolution. So that's when you should start to negotiate. And that then of course explains why governments at some point would say, no, we're not going to negotiate. And that then changes over time. 

FREDRIK LOGEVAL: Yeah, I think all of that is really, really, good. And I mean it's just fascinating to me that there is, as you pointed out, Erin, there's this disconnect between what governments profess that they're going to do and what they actually do. Classic example is Ronald Reagan famously said, "There will be no negotiation with terrorists of any kind." And then his own administration infamously negotiated the sale of weapons to Iran as part of an effort to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon. So, yeah, the hypocrisy, if that's the word you want to use, or at least the disconnect is profound. 

And I think Annette is right in terms of the timing here. That's really the question. We know it's going to happen. So when is it going to happen? And of course, again, there are people who will say you should never do this, who will follow, who will echo the Ronald Reagan line. But it's not practical in the real world. I don't think matters are that clear-cut. 

The problem is that there are still people who will basically say should not negotiate until these so-called terrorists are on the verge of giving up. In other words, it's not really a negotiation at all. All you're negotiating is the terms of their surrender. That's not really practical. Arguably, they should be committed on some level to a cessation of violence prior to the start of negotiations. 

But the example of Trump's negotiations in Afghanistan are pretty interesting because you would have expected-- I would have expected that Democrats and others in the United States would condemn the administration for what it proceeded to do. And of course, some of these negotiations had already taken place in previous administrations. But it was not much condemnation. 

So maybe the temporal dimension, thinking out loud here, maybe the temporal dimension matters as well. The United States by that point had been involved in a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan for a very long time. It was frustrating. American domestic opinion was not clamoring for a continuation of this struggle. Arguably, that gave the administration an opening that it would not otherwise have had. 

JYTTE KLAUSEN: I think I would add that the Biden administration probably misestimated the reaction to their acknowledgment of the agreement that the Trump administration made with the Taliban. And the pullout has really continued to buy at Biden's approval ratings. It's important also to unpack what the military was saying when Austin stood before Congress and said that the pullout was "a logistical success about a strategic failure." 

I don't think a good job has been done in this country actually really discussing what happened. Anthony Blinken testified before Congress that by the time that the Biden administration took over in January of this year, it was clear that the Taliban was stronger in Afghanistan than it had been at any point in 20 years, even perhaps more in control than the Taliban was in the 1990s where the Northern Alliance held out control of certain areas. 

From my vantage point, the problem is that it wasn't a negotiation. There was no negotiations. It was the United States just decided that to pull out. There were any number of alternative outcomes that were never ever discussed, including possibilities such as the division of Afghanistan into a sort of post-1945 Berlin territory where people who had been working with the United States people who did not accede to the Taliban regime would have had an opportunity to seek refuge. 

And I think this goes back to something that Annette says that the Trump administration completely shut out the Afghani interest in those negotiations with the Taliban. I also don't believe that it will last. I think the United States will be back in Afghanistan because if I was going to make a bet on what the situation will look like five years from now. Well, it's hard to say. But probably there will be a Civil War in Afghanistan in one way or another. 

The Taliban is not a coherent organization. That was another problem. The negotiation, if you negotiate with a terrorist organization, there has to be somebody in charge. There has to be a probability that the organization can actually make a binding agreement and control its own troops. I don't see any chance that the Taliban can do that. The Haqqani network, which is a designated terrorist organization, also globalized drug-trading network, is now part of the government. And the deputy leader of the Taliban is the minister of the interior in the new government. 

I mean, this is an extraordinary situation. And I think that it may be true as Anthony Blinken and others have said that by the time the Biden administration took over, the game was already lost. I think that's hard to assess. But I think the loss that has followed in terms of intelligence gathering. In terms of broken promises to allies is just an extraordinarily huge issue that the United States will have to deal with going forward. 

ANNETTE IDLER: Can I just add a point to what Frederick said before about the disconnect between what state say and what they actually do. I think it's also important to think about what states declare publicly, and that does not necessarily mean that there could be some sort of back channel diplomacy. Actually, in many negotiations across the world, there's usually always first informal talks that take place long before there are formal official talks. 

So there's also one way of thinking about it in terms of the domestic audience. What is it that voters want to hear? , Well voters often want to hear that you would not negotiate with these groups. But actually, what's happening informally is very different to that. 

FREDRIK LOGEVAL: That's a really good point, Annette. And I'm also reflecting on an irony here, which is, if in fact, it's the case that some believe in, say the United States, that you should only negotiate with terrorists when they are on the point of surrender. I think what Jytte was suggesting about the US in Afghanistan is that maybe it was the United States that felt like it was on the point of surrender. In other words, that the negotiations that one might have expected to occur. 

And driving a hard bargain by, in this case, the Trump administration didn't happen. So the shoe in a sense was on the other foot. It's pretty interesting. 


ERIN GOODMAN: We'll stop here and continue this conversation in part 2 when we'll discuss the consequences for a nation when it gives up or gives in to violent groups. And we'll talk more about the United States pullout from Afghanistan. For now, I want to thank our contributors, Annette Idler, Fredrik Logeval and Jytte Klausen for this insightful discussion. 

Thanks for listening. I'm Erin Goodman with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, a research Center at Harvard University that supports dialogue on complex international and global issues. Please come back for part two of this discussion.