Negotiating with Terrorists (Part 2)

PODCAST | ep8 | 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 #8 (28:49) by clicking the play button below:


While part 1 explores the caveats of labeling a group “terrorist,” part 2 addresses how to negotiate with terrorists without legitimizing their methods or ideology, and address what happens to a nation’s reputation when they give in, give up, or back down in the face of extremist groups. If the US is willing to negotiate with the Taliban, should it also be open to negotiating with Hamas or ISIS or Al-Qaeda? Jytte Klausen points out that if the demands of the adversaries are reasonable and pragmatic, there is usually an opportunity to work together, the operative word being “if.” Annette Idler describes the successful negotiations with the FARC in Colombia as an example of careful planning and evaluation before the actual talks, and emphasizes the importance of understanding the attitudes, opinions and experiences of local citizens in a conflict zone.

The concern that negotiating with groups that use terror and violence will somehow encourage or legitimize their methods does not bear out, according to Fredrik Logevall. He compares the US retreat from Vietnam to that of Afghanistan and finds fascinating similarities, but also key differences, such as lack of public engagement on the latter.

Non-state armed groups are part of the new global security picture, Klausen believes, and she highlights regions that are volatile today, such as India/Pakistan/Kashmir. We should not underestimate the importance of Afghanistan in regional stability, she warns. Since extremists groups are likely here to stay, Idler describes a multilevel approach to incorporating non-state actors into foregin policy strategies. 


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 back 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. We're continuing with part two of our episode on negotiating with terrorists and violent groups, with our scholars Annette Idler, Frederic Logevall and Jytte Klausen. 

In part one, we talked about both the value and caveats of labeling a group a terrorist organization. And we also spoke about why so many leaders throughout history have declared never to negotiate with extremist groups, but then change course. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is in the foreground of our discussion, as the US did admit defeat to the Taliban, a violent terrorist group. 

I'll introduce our participants. Annette Idler is a visiting scholar in the Weatherhead Scholars Program and director of the Global Security program and founder of the Changing Character of Conflict platform at Oxford. Jytte Klausen is the Lawrence A. Wien 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. Frederick Logevall is a Lawrence Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government and Professor of History at Harvard University. 

When we last spoke, none of you endorsed the hard line of never negotiating with terrorists. So if it's a question of when to negotiate and not whether, as I think you all agree, this brings us back to whether it's actually possible to negotiate with violent groups without legitimizing their ideology or their methods of governance. Is there any way we could say that the US managed to concede to the Taliban without legitimizing their takeover of the country? And if we're talking to the Taliban, should we also be prepared to talk with Hamas or ISIS or al-Qaeda? Jytte? 

JYTTE KLAUSEN: I think pragmatism rules and if something can be accomplished, then talking to terrorists is a good idea But I think that there has been a tendency to not appreciate the difference between these different groups. What does Hamas want Hamas wants a piece of land that it can control. It wants guarantees of land for Palestinians. It wants guarantees with respect to Jerusalem. 

These were all objectives that at one point in time, seemed like plausible objectives. Some type of co governance could have been set up. There were negotiations. But in this case, Israel walked away from those negotiations. 

And if we look back, in fact, one of the objectives that was met with the negotiations with the PLO, was that at least some of the terrorist incidents against Israel, seized. But if you go back to the Northern Irish situation, there are always splinter groups that don't go along. 

So what we often see in the context of negotiations, is actually an increase in violence, because the splinter groups and other groups, and also the other negotiation partners, actually increase the violence at the same time as they try to negotiate. So the violence is part of the negotiations, in a sense. But if you look at an organization like al-Qaeda, what is there to discuss? 

If you think about what is al-Qaeda's goal, this is not a goal that can be met. al-Qaeda doesn't want a piece of land for itself, to impose its rules. It wants a global revolution and seeks to stimulate an Armageddon, where the faithful battle all of the infidels and the apostates. The idea here is that this is not primarily a war against the West. This is a war against Islam. 

As Gilles Kepel once put it, what jihadism is really about, it's a war for control over the Muslim mind. And I think that summarizes the objectives very well. And if you accept that, this is not a situation that the United States or the West in any way, can engage in a peaceful negotiation about. And walking away from that fight would seriously compromise the United States' ability to work with allies that have historically helped promote American objectives, with respect to an international order. 

So I think one of the problems is that if al-Qaeda is just seen simply as a terrorist organization, rather than as part of the new security picture associated with globalization, globalization has been a really very important facilitator for the spread of global terrorism. And this is just what the new security picture looks like. 

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: Yeah, I think I agree. And I just think that the question Erin, that you're posing here, is such an important question. How does one negotiate with violent groups without legitimizing their ideology, as I think you were suggesting. And then you made the-- you had the specific example of the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

And I think, I guess I want to come back again, to what I call the temporal dimension. Because I'm just thinking about this, as we proceed, and it seems to me that most informed observers around the world had already accepted that the Taliban, because of its persistence, because of the fact that it had actually been in power previously, on some level was legitimate. That that was something that could very much happen. 

So I can see on the one hand, I think maybe we can all see the argument, that negotiating with terrorists will only glorify their actions, will only encourage similar acts. So that as the saying might go, democracies can't give in to violence. You can't reward these groups for engaging in that violence. And if you negotiate with them, you're only basically giving them license to do more of this. 

So you can see that argument. But I'm not sure it's all that compelling, in the end. And Afghanistan, not just under Trump, but for several years prior, certainly under Obama, it just doesn't get you very far. 

ANNETTE IDLER: Maybe, I would add here that, again, it comes back to perceptions. And I think it's important not to think about this as a Western versus non-Western divide, but again, understand the local perceptions. Because we need to see who is perceived to be illegitimate by whom. And of course, the negotiations are not always the solution. Sometimes you just need military pressure. Sometimes you also need investment in development and think about other factors. 

But if we think about, or if we acknowledge, that many of these groups are perceived to be legitimate by locals, whether we want it or not, that then leads to a very different approach, which then can also be pragmatic. So we then need to think about why do these groups emerge in the first place and why do they draw on local support? And again, I'm not saying that this happens across the board, and of course, there are many cases where locals are basically have no other choice. 

But there are also cases where we shouldn't assume that they are seen to be the bad guys and then the government are the good guys, or the international community are the good guys. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, governments have also systematically disadvantaged the groups that they represent. So when local communities have no infrastructure, no electricity, no civilian state institutions, this is where often groups, often insurgent groups, they are there and at least present themselves as the ones who help the local population. 

That has been the case with FARC, in many of the marginalized areas. Or in Myanmar, where ethnic minorities have not had the same opportunities to participate in politics in the same way as others do. Even in Somalia, I mean, in my work on Al-Shabab, I have interviews with people who claim, well, at least Al-Shabab, they brought stability to regions, where otherwise there was just chaos and it was a failure. So that's a very different perception to the one that we might have from the outside. 

So that does not justify the violent means, and of course, we do not want to legitimize the violence that they are drawing on. But if we think through those local perceptions, it helps understand why they are successful in the first place. And it also means that we can think creatively about what other ways they are, in addition to military action and perhaps also negotiations. 

For example, investing in sustainable development, investing in a fair and equitable distribution of resources, or power sharing agreements. And then think about how can we take this legitimacy as something that is not just about external actors and what do they do through their actions with those groups, but also how we can change the perception of the local population of these groups. 

ERIN GOODMAN: Thank you, Annette for underscoring the local perspective and for offering some non-violent alternatives to ending conflict. The US has often intervened in local or acute conflicts, rather than just global conflicts that we see today. As we discussed in part one, one of the earliest cases of the US seeking to hold on to credibility while withdrawing from a violent conflict, was in Vietnam. 

The US, under Kissinger, made many attempts to negotiate a peace agreement with the Viet Cong, with the North Vietnamese. Were we seen as successful in this? Were we then internationally regarded as soft on communism? And is there a parallel today, as seeing us as soft on terrorism? I'd like to get your opinion on that, Fred. 

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: Yeah. I mean, it's true, as you say, that these negotiations went for a long time. They began really under Johnson. But I would say with respect to- this is Lyndon Johnson, of course, Nixon's predecessor. With respect to LBJ, I think he was mostly interested in negotiating the terms of North Vietnam surrender. In other words, it was not, I think, the negotiations that began in Paris in 1968. 

Both sides drove a hard bargain. I'm not suggesting Hanoi was eager to engage either. But you really see results, as you point out, under Kissinger and Le Duc Tho on the North Vietnamese side. Now, the argument could be made that agreement that was finally signed in January of 1973, could have been had earlier. That's a long standing debate among historians. 

Could Kissinger, since he and Nixon privately behind closed doors, since they were prepared from an early point to have what became known as a decent interval, that is to say, that gap of time between the departure of American forces and the so-called-- became the fall of Saigon. If they were prepared to follow a decent interval solution, couldn't they have had a deal far earlier than they got, thereby saving thousands of American lives and ultimately, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian lives. That's a real debate. 

But an agreement was signed. I think most people would say it's a good thing that it was signed. The North Vietnamese themselves, were at this point, quite eager for an agreement we know. And as for your question about credibility, this is so interesting because the argument was, as you point out, from Kissinger and others, we can only negotiate if it preserves our credibility, which is a nebulous concept, to say the least. 

And there were arguments that if we allow South Vietnam to fall, whether by negotiation or violent overthrow, our credibility will be shot. I'm a real skeptic about this. I don't think that credibility was nearly as important here as American officials like to suggest. In fact, what many people said, as you may know, was that it's staying in for this long in Vietnam, expending this much blood and treasure, that really calls into question American credibility and America's judgment. 

And so what I think we can say with respect to the credibility argument, was that it was not grievously undermined by the decision to negotiate this agreement. The dominoes did not fall outside of outside of Indochina after this agreement. That was a kind of red herring almost, Erin, in terms of how much it affected thinking about the decision to negotiate with Hanoi. 

ERIN GOODMAN: If I could add something here. I was thinking about which audiences were most salient in the minds of leaders when pulling out of Vietnam versus Afghanistan. As we know, there was widespread public protest against the Vietnam War, but not so for Afghanistan. What do the leaders care more about, public opinion or their international reputation? I'm curious about the long term impact from pulling out of Vietnam and what you think the impact will be of withdrawing from Afghanistan. 

FREDRIK LOGEVALL: It's a really good point. And the two wars are pretty interesting to compare. And as you say, there was much more protests in the Vietnam case, on campuses, including this one, elsewhere around the world, my native Sweden. Believe it or not, there were lots of demonstrations, mostly pro Hanoi, although some counter demonstrations. This was a global thing, in a way that I don't think Afghanistan became. 

On the other hand, by the time Kissinger and Le Duc Tho do most of their heavy lifting, in terms of this diplomacy. I think the war had begun to recede from American consciousness. I think Americans were tired of the conflict. Were looking for-- most Americans. Were looking for an exit, wanting this thing to end. 

And in that sense, maybe the connection to Afghanistan is actually closer than one might imagine. Roughly comparable in terms of time period. Much more bloodshed in Vietnam, including on the American side. We should not exaggerate the similarities between these two wars. 

But I think, I guess I'm suggesting, that the administrations in both cases, Nixon and then I guess we would say the Trump administration in terms of the key agreement, had a lot of latitude, I think, in domestic political opinion and in terms of congressional opinion. Felt at that point, I think, that they could do this and survive politically. But it's a really good point that you make. 


JYTTE KLAUSEN: I guess I'm struck by the real lack of interest in Afghanistan in public media, but also among the public. There was, I think, a backlash against the Biden administration and the pullout, particularly the visuals of the pullout. But the general sense is not that this was any more a huge investment on the part of the United States. Being in Afghanistan was no longer seen as being, at this point in time, not been seen as central to American security policy. 

Personally, I think, people are underestimating the importance of Afghanistan in regional stability. I think the situation between India and Pakistan and Kashmir is very, very vulnerable and could go very badly. But what the final sense would be of this pullout, really depends on what happens over the next five years. These types of memories are very malleable and get seen through the lens of subsequent events, I would argue. 

So I agree with Fredrik, that actually when we look at it from a sort of longer durée the damage to the US from pulling out in Vietnam, was not what one would think because the damage was already done before the pullout. So it if you remember, the Cold War took a different turn. There were negotiations. Helsinki agreements followed, which were very positive effort to start to talk with the enemy. 

So I think that we need to think very carefully about what happens over the next five years. And this of course, brings up questions about diplomatic recognition of the Taliban, et cetera. But I think the US needs to think very carefully about its allies and its relationship with other countries in the region, particularly Pakistan and India, and the fallout from this situation. 

The fallout also, I should, really want to stress, includes intelligence. We heard President Biden talk about oh, the horizon intelligence, introducing this new concept that we can is to have drones way up and satellites, and they can follow everything. And our ability to protect our allies and ourselves against what everybody recognizes is a much stronger al-Qaeda, that now once again, has a homeland, for where operations can be launched. Troops can go for rest and recreation. 

I think what happens next is going to be really important. And I actually, it's important to recognize that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are actors in this picture, and probably much smarter today than there were 20 years ago. I don't see Ayman al-Zawahiri, who appears to still be alive, engaging in another big spectacular event like comparable to a 9/11. The lesson has been learned, that if you poke the bear, the bear will come back and haunt you. 

And I think the reality is that al-Qaeda has for the past five years, been following a tactic of conciliation and consolidation. Not to forget that there is a big jihadist in Idlib province in Northwest Syria today. So these are big, big issues and the al-Qaeda network and the jihadist movement more broadly, which is also really splintered and much bigger than it was 20 years ago, is an actor in the new geopolitical situation that we all have to deal with over the next decade. 

ERIN GOODMAN: So I'd like to end with a big question, which you've just hinted at, Jytte, which is how can countries, how can nation states, consider and take into account violent groups when they conduct foreign policy? 

JYTTE KLAUSEN: Well, this is a big question. And I think one of the exhibit a, maybe Turkey, actually right now. Turkey has been conducting a proxy war in Libya, competing and trying to undermine Egypt, with respect to access to the development of oil and gas, mostly gas, in the Eastern Mediterranean. And some of the fighters that Turkey has been supporting there are Syrians, who have been caught in a military training through the Syrian Civil War and have been promised Turkish citizenship as a reward for being part of a sort of foreign legion deployment in Libya. 

This is just a template for how these new types of small wars become part of the competition between regional powers. Imagine that playing out in a similar scenario, on a similar template, between Pakistan and India. This is definitely something that NATO is already attuned to thinking about and gaming out. But we also have the situation with Russia and Crimea and the Baltics. 

This is just a far more splintered and big picture. And one thing I would say in that, is that it is very important to keep in mind that non-state actors also have strategies, and also have intelligent decisions capabilities. And they play. They make temporary alliances and they play in this game. 


FREDRIK LOGEVALL: Yeah. I think it's a big question that you ask. And I think I see no alternative but to proceed on a case by case basis. Which is to say, that assuming that negotiations are appropriate in every instance, would it seems to be no more valid than assuming that negotiations are never a good idea. 

So I think you have to, if you're the government in question here, I think you have to proceed on that basis through careful study. You could, I guess, hold to a view that you're going to begin formal negotiations at least, only after the group in question has declared a cessation of violence and you have reason to believe that that's legit. Some people, I think, make a distinction between what they call nihilistic terrorists, those who have apocalyptic goals, sometimes for religious reasons, and those groups that are quote unquote, more traditional in their aims, more instrumental in their use of violence, more political in their aspirations. Maybe that's a useful distinction for governments to hold. 

The problem, of course, is that that's often in the eye of the beholder, whether this is a rational actor that you're dealing with or an irrational actor. That can be a tough call to make. Though it may sound a bit unsatisfactory, Erin, I would say case by case basis, careful study, be open to the idea of these negotiations. We have lots of examples that we've discussed today, of them actually having a salutary effect, being a good thing. But you can't have a blanket approach. 


ANNETTE IDLER: Well, I would add to that, that governments really need to think about the holistic picture of the context, when they think about violent groups. I think there are three factors to take into consideration. One is the parties involved, which is the group. You can think about whether you negotiate with or not. The second one is who are the other relevant actors? And the third one is the audience or the people on the ground. 

So on the first one, on the parties involved. First of all, you need to think about is there a way that you can actually establish some sort of minimum trust or reduce distrust, so that some sort of negotiation is possible? And there, a lot of effort really goes into thinking through what I mentioned before, what you actually need to do before formal negotiations can begin. 

So one of the reasons why many people argue the Colombian peace negotiations were successful was because there was a limited agenda. There were six points and they made it possible to keep momentum. Several milestones were part of that. It included Raul reform, the political participation, illicit drugs, victims, the end of the conflict, implementation. And the general agreement was that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So just thinking through what is it actually that you want to negotiate about? Is that possible. So that, I think, is important in terms of the other party. 

Then with regard to other actors that are relevant, I mean, we need to also account for the fact that most conflicts today are multi-party conflicts. So you can have negotiations with one group, but you actually also need to think about the presence of other violent non-state actors that are still present. And in many cases, they are spoilers. And in many cases, they also want to have a seat at the table. But also, in many cases, it's the other way around. 

In Myanmar there was the 2015 nationwide ceasefire agreement and initially, that was thought to be something with 15 different groups. But in the end, seven declined. They no longer participated. So what do you do then in a situation where some actors agree and others don't? How do you account for potential spoilers, especially today, in those multi-party conflicts. 

And also how do you know, what Jytte mentioned before, these alliances can shift very quickly. So who's on whose side? Who might be on the side of one particular actor and who not? Which groups have alliances with each other? That changes over time so we need to think about the fluidity of contemporary conflicts. 

And then the third point about the audience, the people. I think, again, whether we want it or not, we need to recognize, or governments need to recognize, that they are not the only entities that have authority in large parts of countries that face armed conflict or other forms of instability, such as organized crime. So understanding that and what it means for people on the ground, I think, is key. 

For example, to have the right communication strategy, even about why you would enter those negotiations. We started the discussion about why is it that sometimes governments first say they would never negotiate with certain groups and then they do. Well, if people are being told that these groups are the enemy, that we need to fight them, how should then a domestic audience suddenly understand that now negotiations are possible, that suddenly that shifts. 

And maybe I can just share anecdotes here from my fieldwork. One was at the border region between Colombia-Venezuela, where I talked to local Indigenous groups about the peace talks, before the peace deal was signed, about the peace talks in Havana. And they would tell me, well, we don't even know what these gentlemen are talking about. We have no idea about the content. The content is not available in Indigenous languages, so why should we believe in that? It was just too far removed from that. 

So this was really striking because it shows that for people it wasn't even clear that the purpose of those peace talks are to stop the war. This is how strong the disconnect was between kind of politics at the lead level, versus what's happening on the ground. 

ERIN GOODMAN: It sounds like you're suggesting a three-point approach. 

ANNETTE IDLER: Yeah, basically. Having a holistic picture of the situation thinking, through what does it mean to engage with the other party, with the violent group, number one. Then thinking through what is the role of other actors, other violent actors, number two. And then three, what is the role of the domestic audience? What is the communication that is required when you want to engage or negotiate with violent groups. 

ERIN GOODMAN: So many excellent points to consider. We're going to stop here and ponder the global security picture. Clearly, m non-state actors, whether they have local or global aspirations, are likely here to stay. And I want to give enormous thanks to our scholars, Annette Idler, Jytte Klausen, and Fred Logevall, for giving us important frameworks to think about when it comes to foreign policy. 

Thanks for listening. I'm Erin Goodman, signing off from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, a research center at Harvard University that supports dialogue on complex, international and global issues. Please remember to check out part one of this conversation. If you've enjoyed our podcast, please subscribe to it on your favorite listening platform.