Does Jonathan Powell really want to negotiate with the Islamic State?

Or does he just want more people talking about Jonathan Powell?

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

I think I’ve finally worked out the time-honoured Jonathan Powell formula for promoting a new book: take which-ever group constitutes the most bloodthirsty terrorist organisation of the day — in this case IS, the warped Islamist force currently enslaving and beheading its way across Iraq and Syria — and create a media fizz by boldly declaring that sooner or later we’re going to have to negotiate with them.

Powell’s predicted circumstances in which the ‘talking’ to IS should actually happen, however, are hedged with unrealised conditions. At other moments he will daringly hint that talking is best without any preconditions at all. During the Northern Ireland peace process, one of the approaches beloved by the British government was that of ‘creative ambiguity’, in which mutually contradictory positions could be held simultaneously. In Mr Powell it appears to have become a habit.

Following his argument is a bit like riding a rodeo bull: you can only hang in there for so long. In a recent Guardian article, headlined ‘How to talk to terrorists’, he noted that: ‘We usually delay talking to armed groups too long, and as a result a large number of people die unnecessarily.’ (So talk sooner?) Yet at the same time, on IS, ‘We need to work out a longer-term strategy for dealing with whatever threat they pose, rather than opting once again for a kneejerk response to satisfy opinion polls. That strategy will certainly include security measures: if the terrorists feel they have a chance of winning, they will just carry on fighting.’ (So hit hard, talk later?) But then again: ‘If people sit around waiting for a conflict to be ripe for talks to start, or for the forces of history to solve it for them, then it will never be resolved.’ (So talk any time — and fetch me a couple of paracetamol, will you?)

The one solid thing we can reliably do, it seems, is to ‘learn from the experience of others’ and call in the expertise in this field of Jonathan Powell, who is now chief executive of the charity Inter Mediate, which works on armed conflicts.

I am not saying that Powell’s negotiating experience should be discounted, just that he writes terrorism a very broad and variable prescription with an uncomfortably flashy pen. For if we don’t want IS now to feel as if it has a ‘chance of winning’ — and I presume we don’t, since it has gloatingly festooned itself in atrocities and is on the march near Baghdad and Kobane — then perhaps it might be a good idea not to go around sagely predicting through every possible news outlet that one day we will be compelled to negotiate with it?

I must confess to a bit of ‘previous’ with Powell. I was tootling around the internet recently when I bumped into a long complaint he had written about me in 2011, on an interesting paid-for website called ICorrect which bills itself as ‘the universal website for corrections to lies, misinformation and misrepresentation’.

I had written an article for this magazine in 2010 in which I said that I was weary of Powell’s picturesque anecdotes about joshing with Gerry Adams in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement, and observed that the Northern Ireland deal — given the bargains struck with IRA and loyalist paramilitaries — was not an ‘unalloyed triumph’. While we might have to live with that, I said, it would be preferable not to romanticise it. I also suggested that Powell’s then much-publicised policy of talking to the Taleban — particularly given its stance on women’s rights — was unlikely to afford much long-term solace for liberal-minded locals.

ICorrect, set up by the Hong Kong businessman Sir David Tang, offers celebrity clients the chance to ‘set the record straight’ on unjust accusations on a website that ‘protects one’s reputation in cyberspace for ever’. The fee for individuals is US$1,000 per annum. In the site’s ‘accusation’ section, Mr Powell penned his own summary of my original article without using a single direct quotation. Then he argued against his own loose summary.

Among other things, he accused me of mixing up the Afghan and the Pakistani Taleban, or TTP — because I had referenced the latter’s campaign in the Swat valley — saying: ‘Swat is in Pakistan and you can draw no inferences whatsoever from what the TTP did there for what the Afghan Taleban might or not do.’

Yet while the Afghan and the complex Pakistani Taleban are indeed separate organisations, in 2010 Swat was already a blurrier case. A sermonising Swat Taleban militant called Maulana Fazlullah — who had previously seized control of Swat — had been driven out by Pakistani security forces, was across the border in Afghanistan, and was even then politically close to Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taleban leader.

Last year Fazlullah became head of the Pakistani Taleban, a promotion reportedly backed by Mullah Omar himself, and enthusiastically reiterated his fealty to his Afghan supporter.

Nothing about this suggests that on the treatment of women — the topic under discussion in my original piece — there was a material difference between the positions of the Swat and Afghan Taleban in 2010. Even the recent inching of some Afghan Taleban towards a segregated, heavily religious education for girls — instead of none at all — has included a corresponding shift by the government away from the wider protection of women’s rights: compromises with fanaticism can have their own steep civic cost.

Of course states must be alert to the mutations of terrorist groups, and cultivate potentially useful information and contacts even in unappetising places: few would argue otherwise. But IS is a very different organisation from the IRA of the 1990s, with radically dissimilar aims and ideology, and the cost to the West of appearing readily malleable could be high.

Mr Powell is currently our special envoy to Libya, and I wish him more success there than his former boss Tony Blair has enjoyed as peace envoy to the Middle East. But I don’t buy into his chosen status as the international deal-whisperer to terrorists.

Iraq-and-Syria-debate-coffee house imageThe Spectator is holding a debate ‘Iraq and Syria are lost causes: intervention can’t help’ at 7pm on Wednesday 22 October at Church House, SW1. Speakers for the motion will include John Redwood and Patrick Cockburn, and against, Douglas Murray, Ed Husain and General The Lord Dannatt. Chairing the debate will be Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.

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Show comments
  • Dr. Heath

    None of us was around at the time but an earlier power grab by totalitarian, lunatic butchers that made the headlines occurred during the French Revolution. None of France’s neighbours saw any logic in negotiating with the lunatics. Nothing comes up it. Today’s lunatics hate us and they want to kill us. That’s it. No deals.

    The map of the as yet imaginary Caliphate that’s been posted on one of the lunatics’ sites shows much of the Old World in black. Within the boundaries of this totalitarian nightmare are the Iberian peninsula and most of India. The Bin-Ladenist leaders of IS would, were it possible, adopt the same policy to the people of this future paradise as Bin Laden himself had devised during his time in office as Mass-Murderer-in-Chief. Mass extermination. One estimate [Hitchens’s, Martin Amis’s??] of the number of survivors [perfectly formed, Sunni Muslim men] that Osama foresaw in his perfect world was not much more than one hundred million, a tiny fraction of the current population of the world.

  • AJAX

    This strange Blairite character should prove to us what a great peace-maker he is by going out to North Iraq & negotiating with the Islamic State in person, & we can all see the results, on the internet, in orange.

    • Owen_Morgan

      Beat me to it. And why do we need a “special envoy” to Libya, when we don’t, according to my recollection, have any current diplomatic presence there at all?

  • ADW

    There is nothing to negotiate. They want to impose a worldwide caliphate, we believe in human rights. Owen Jones assured everyone recently that they are “universal” human rights, incidentally, though they don’t seem universally accepted, in Northern Iraq, anyway.

    • red2black

      Looks like they want a return to pre-World War One boundaries.

      • GUBU

        I suspect that Mullah Al Baghdadi’s ultimate aim is to recreate boundaries last seen in the 8th Century or thereabouts.

        Perhaps best not to invest in a holiday home on the Costa Del Sol – just in case.

        • rodger the dodger

          Your suspicions are well founded.

          His correct name is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and that is highly significant. He has named himself after the first Caliph (Abu Bakr) of the first Caliphate, post Mohammed. He was Mohammed’s right hand man. When Mohammed died, he set about purging Islam of ‘apostates’ and ‘hypocrites’, which is exactly what his modern namesake is doing in Syria and Iraq.
          What we are really looking at here is a time machine. The beginnings of Islam. They’re playing it out all over again, because that’s what worked the first time.

          All you need to do to understand ISIS is read Islamic doctrine. Their entire strategy and tactics are in there. They don’t do anything that isn’t.

  • Blindsideflanker

    Yes Powell does want to ‘negotiate ‘ with the islamofacists of IS , for as a fully paid up member of the British establishment he doesn’t perceive there is any value to defend here. Powell represents the decadence of the British establishment.

    • John Carins

      It’s not just decadence but also an appalling defeatist mind-set. .

      • Blindsideflanker

        Indeed, it is that defeatism that has subjugated us into the EU.

  • Flower Powerchild

    the dhimmification of Britain continues

  • Given that Mr. Powell presents his
    credentials as a former advisor to Blair, who lied us into bombing Iraq
    and destroying its infrastructure, thus creating the context in
    which “ISIS” can thrive, his views on the situation will be
    received with a healthy dollop of skepticism.

    His comparison with the IRA is untenable
    for a very obvious reason. However strong the repugnance which any reasonable
    and decent person would feel for the activities of IRA or “loyalist” murderers may
    be, there were some things you could negotiate with the IRA. Some aims along
    the spectrum towards their ultimate aims that could be granted without
    abandoning the whole framework of human civilization. This is not the case with the murderous psychopaths of islamist fundamentalism. What would Mr. P. like to negotiate them? Some demarcation zones in which they are allowed to murder, maim and rape? An imposition of “just a little” of their necrophilic culture in the
    wider world? These people are not negotiators, and their wishes are not negotiable.
    Not even by someone who would doubtless like us to pay him an awful lot
    of money for trying.

    The reasons for not talking to Mr. P. any
    more on this subject are not quite as strong as the reasons why there is
    absolutely no point in trying to talk to ISIS, but they are sufficiently

  • Mr Grumpy

    Well, I’ve read Mr Powell’s piece on ICorrect (which appears to be a little short of paying customers of late) and it is certainly entertaining. Part of his case against Ms McCartney is that she is her father’s daughter. Damning indeed.

  • John Croston

    The leadership of IS are fanatical Muslims who are devoutly following the instructions left by Allah in the Koran and they are using their “prophet” Mohammad as a role model. You can’t even tell them it’s wrong to crucify prisoners or take girls as sex-slaves – because they actually believe ( and they are right, no matter what David Cameron says) that it is fully justified by their religion.
    And let’s not forget that lying to non-believers to further the cause is also fully justified in Islam and that Mohammad said “I have been made victorious by terror” and “War is deceit.” It’s pointless to negotiate with people who hold these views.

  • Terry Field

    OH dear; no belief in anything except continuing to be a punchbag.
    If he chats to ISIS, he will find his head is closer to the ground than he would prefer.
    Idiocy from the dead-and-alive mandarin-types.
    No hope; RIP Britannia.

  • Tanveer Kashmir

    In future a negotiation deal between west and ISIL is likely to hold against Russia and Iran.

  • edlancey

    He’s just another dhimmi idiot. Like them or not, at least the IRA had vaguely rational goals – a united Ireland – even if no-one in the RoI was interested in being ruled by a bunch of post-marxist bigots living out some post-colonial murder fantasy. IS(IS) goals seem to be enslaving the entire world with them at the top and the rest of either dead or chattel. What is there to negotiate about ?

    I hope Powell volunteers to go and negotiate himself and its inevitable outcome.

    • mikewaller

      I recently spoke to someone who, through a family connection, has heard IRA members in reflective mood. The most telling insight was one saying very gloomily of NI “The real trouble is nobody wants us”. How very true.

  • Robertus Maximus

    I think we should offer to negotiate. Invite the leadership for talks, and when they are all gathered together in some poxy fly-blown tent awaiting the arrival of their opponents, drop a bl**dy great bomb on them.

    • Simon_in_London

      Both the Americans and Russians have already done that plenty of times – it seems to have been what happened to Gadaffi, and it happened to the Chechen leader when he was on the phone to Yeltsin. Might be hard to fool IS – they have a bunch of Chechens.

  • sarah_13

    Just what does Mr Powell propose we talk about with these psychopaths? Delaying the killing of non-believers for say a couple of months? When the people you are talking to have the literal and unalterable word of god on their side which they say allows them to enslave, rape and murder men women and children who THEY deem to be non-believers, tell me what is there to talk about?

    One of the many reasons we had the commitment and moral clarity to beat the nazi’s was because when Churchill became PM he opposed any consideration at all of talking to the Nazis because he knew appeasement of any kind with totalitarians only means one thing, acquiescing to their demands, and in this case it would mean handing over to pysochptathic murderers other peoples freedom instead of helping them defend their freedom.

    • Simon_in_London

      “handing over to pysochptathic murderers other peoples freedom”

      Churchill seemed to have no trouble literally handing people over to Stalin, even putting them on death trains to Russia – not all that different from the Nazis in kind, if not in scale.

  • Bob-B

    We should send Mr Powell to talk to ISIS. It’s just possible that he wouldn’t come back, but it’s a risk we should be prepared to take.

  • Simon_in_London

    IS per se aren’t interested in talking, so it’s not an issue. On the other hand there are Sunni Ba’athists in IS for whom the sudden conversion to religious fanaticism is likely only skin deep. The Iraqi Ba’ath, and other Iraqi Sunnis, who are currently supporting IS are very likely to be negotiable. But those negotiations will have to be over the bodies of the foreign Jihadis and other true fanatics: the really demonic element has got to go.

  • Simon_in_London

    One major point: IS is not on our soil (though obviously IS-inspired jihadis are) and it’s not really our busy to decide whether & when to negotiate with them. It should primarily be people in the neighbourhood who deal with their own problems, even problems the USA created & exacerbated.

  • Gergiev

    A united Ireland is a perfectly respectable idea, a worldwide “caliphate”, or even one just confined to Islam’s historical areas, would be hell on earth: Syria/Iraq already is… Perhaps we could reduce the number of crucifixions and beheadings to say one a month with a double ration during Ramadan, reduce the jizya by half and so on…

  • chris_xxxx

    Jonathan Powell, the Downing Street Chief of Staff under Tony Blair, where the government took the UK to war with Iraq based on lies and allowed in 4 million immigrants without the consent of the British people.

    He should go back to whatever rock he crawled from.

  • Innit Bruv

    Negotiate what??? “Special envoy to Libya!!!! The mind boggles.
    How do these twerps get into such positions of power in the first place?

  • Dr Corvus

    Powell is living in a time warp, in a never-ending year 1999. Back then, with the Cold War won and just one global superpower, perhaps it really did look like the whole world could be pushed (by bombs) and pulled (by “generous” policies of mass immigration into the West) into accepting Western values.

    What we now see is that Western values (like gender equality for example, personal freedom, intellectual autonomy), which are all founded on a sense of the primacy of (a Western concept of) reason, are not and cannot be made universal. You cannot reason with people for whom revelation, not reason, is supreme. All that has been achieved since the happy deluded days of ’99 is a lot of bombs dropped to no good purpose, while the rest of the world has become less not more Western in its values – and so, to a greater degree than we might like to admit, has the West.

    Powell can’t see it. For him, when the millennial year turns, a thousand year age of glorious global multiculture under universal human rights will break out in a new post-Westphalian international order. He just can’t wait for the year 2000.

  • Mike

    Give any local a chance to leave and then nuke the state !

  • mikewaller

    The weight of evidence seems to support the view that Powell is 90% poseur. Whether you do or don’t talk is all a matter of circumstances. If you can simply isolate and eliminate an abhorrent regime or movement, do so. If you can’t, self-evidently, talk you must.

  • Liberty

    One lesson Powell should consider when thinking about negotiating with terrorists is that they will tell lies to get you to make concessions and then exploit them.

    Under the Olso accords Arafat grew to believe he could get the Israelis to make enough concessions to let him win. The deal included withdrawing the IDF from the West Bank in lieu of peace which Arafat failed to implement and with the IDF out of the way Arafat launched a terrorist campaign that killed 3000 Israelis and maimed 1000s more.

    We saw as much in Iraq. When the US left Iran took over and imposed its own men in power; elections were a sham. We can – I think – expect much the same from the Taliban. They went quiet to encourage the notion that they intend to negotiate in good faith. I suppose that Powell thinks that they will build schools and hospitals when the nasty kuffar are out of the way. Such is the standard Lefty delusion.

    We can be sure that IS will learn those lessons, when someone weak is in the white house [Obama is weak but on the way out] go quiet, make conciliatory noises, talk peace and when the Kuffar leave take over. Simple.

    The lesson is of course is that if one deals with terrorists one must expect them to tell lies, pocket any concessions and fake sincerity. Best though to weaken them sufficiently so that they know that they cannot win, then negotiate from a position of strength, demand that they capitulate, in case which we may allow them to live.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    Blair and Powell’s idea of negotiating with the Provos was to grant them their every whim. Enough from this soi-disant Blairite Machiavelli.