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Talking to the Taliban: Lessons from Northern Ireland


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The International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander, has become the latest figure in the government to cite the lessons of Northern Ireland as a model for conflict resolution.

In raising the possibility that the Coalition might talk to elements of the Taliban, Alexander told the Today programme that: "I think people recognise from the experience of places like Northern Ireland that it is necessary to put military pressure on the Taliban while at the same time holding out the prospect that there can be a political process that can follow." [You can hear the comment on the Today Programme website, 04:54 minutes in.]

Alexander's comments are more nuanced than previous government statements on this issue. In acknowledging that military pressure and negotiating can occur side by side, he seems to be more in line with the most recent counter-insurgency tactics adopted by the US Army, articulated by David Kilcullen.

Unfortunately, it remains the case that much of what has been said about the Northern Ireland example in the public domain has been highly misleading. In particular, the assumption that 'talking to terrorists' provided the key variable in the search for peace in Northern Ireland simplifies the history of the conflict there beyond recognition.

First, the British state had tried to talk to the IRA at various intervals, starting as early as 1972. The offer of dialogue was on the table more than it was off it. At various points, this encouraged the terrorists that momentum was on their side and coincided with a surge in expectations and in violence.

Second "hard power" also played a crucial role: the IRA only came to the negotiating table after a hugely successful campaign of intelligence and policing forced them to recognise that their military campaign was failing.

Every conflict is different. But if there is a lesson from Northern Ireland it is that there is a great difference in talking to terrorists who are on the crest of a wave and believe they have momentum on their side and talking to those who have been made to realise - by hard power as well as a soft power - that their aims are unattainable through violence.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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