Getting to Yes with the Taliban

The case for negotiating with terrorists.

Most statesmen confronted by the modern scourge of terrorism have intoned the mantra, "We don't negotiate with terrorists"; yet many have reached out to them, sometimes with considerable success. An ongoing challenge for world leaders today, in an era in which terrorism has emerged as a full-blown form of irregular warfare, is to continue to be willing to talk with these malefactors. The key is to be able to discern the difference between situations in which the terrorists are simply manipulating the negotiation process to play for time or score propaganda points, and those in which there is real hope for peaceful progress.

One of the clearest examples of the value of negotiating with terrorists is provided by Britain's willingness to keep talking with the Irish Republican Army -- yes, via the gossamer-thin cover of speaking to its political front man, Gerry Adams -- over a period of decades. Thus were the modern-era "Troubles," which began in the late 1960s, ended with the IRA's formal renunciation of all violence in 2005. During these decades, British counter-terrorist forces and IRA gunmen kept on fighting hard, but the negotiations continued as well. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, there was "jaw-jaw as well as war-war." In the end, both sides made meaningful concessions about the political future of Northern Ireland, and a clear path to peace was found, one best described as a self-determination plan that will play out over the long term. Without a willingness to "negotiate with terrorists," this would never have happened.

The bitter Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which began to feature regular acts of terrorism around the same time that the Irish Troubles were getting underway, has seen negotiation reduce both the frequency and severity of violence, particularly since the Oslo Accord was reached 20 years ago. This first substantial agreement between Israel and the then-Palestine Liberation Organization began the slow, sometimes halting path toward Palestinian autonomy and, on the other side, greater recognition of Israel by its enemies. Again, there have been continuing acts of terrorism and retaliation -- though of generally decreasing scale on both sides. This is another very good example of knowing when it is worthwhile to negotiate with terrorists -- and highlights again the need for "strategic patience."

One more protracted conflict that has featured many acts of terror is the struggle between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the national government. Deep-rooted in resentment over the unequal distribution of land and wealth -- 1 percent of the population controls half the arable land -- the fighting has been going on for nearly 50 years. The violence has included many acts of terror, hostage-taking, and the like. There have been two major efforts to bring about peace via negotiation. The first came during 1998-2002 when, in the name of "confidence building," the government ceded the FARC a haven roughly the size of Switzerland. This was probably a measure too far, and the insurgents and terrorists were too buoyed. So the government returned to an emphasis on military action, eventually inflicting serious defeats on them over the course of a decade of hard fighting. Which seemed to pay off, as last November a new era of negotiations opened up with ongoing talks, first in Oslo and now in Havana. The great challenge for the Colombian government is to remain open to the possibility of peace, while at the same time avoiding steps that would allow the FARC too much of a chance to get back on its feet.

The American experience in negotiating with terrorists has been mixed, to say the least. The worst debacle unfolded during President Ronald Reagan's second term, when the world learned in 1986 of his secret effort to sell arms to Iran -- a state sponsor of terrorism -- via an Israeli cut-out. The initial idea was to use the arms sale to obtain the release of several hostages being held by an Iran-affiliated terrorist group. Indeed, a few hostages were eventually set free, but more Americans were soon kidnapped -- seemingly to replace the ones who had been released. It was a bad business that next morphed into an effort to use the profits from the secret arms sales to Iran to finance Nicaraguan insurgents trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime. All came tumbling down when the scheme was inadvertently "outed," thanks to a clerical error with a numbered Swiss bank account.

The Iran-Contra affair was a low point in American dealings with terrorists, but 20 years later in Iraq something far more successful was undertaken. At the height of a bloody insurgency replete with regular acts of terrorism, the decision was taken to start talking to the very Iraqis who were fighting American and allied forces. Full disclosure: This was something I had been lobbying for since 2004, but had to face strong headwinds in the form of the strict no-negotiations sentiments of a huge majority of policymakers and military leaders. Yet when the situation grew dire enough, the willingness to talk increased. Soon, about 80,000 enemy fighters -- many of whom resented al Qaeda's authoritarian attitude -- switched sides, and an Iraq that had been losing 100 innocent people each day saw the violence reduced by 90 percent within six months.

This result was far more the product of the arrangements made with those who were now called "the Sons of Iraq" than of the surge of some 20,000 additional U.S. troops into the country. Sadly, complete American withdrawal at the end of 2011 was followed by abrogation of the deals that were made, and the violence is ratcheting back up dangerously. Still, the original idea of bypassing terrorist leaders and reaching out directly to those committing heinous acts was a real breakthrough, a model of how to disrupt a network by aiming at the edges, rather than just trying to rub out leaders.

And it is this example from Iraq that may be the last, best hope for a negotiated solution in Afghanistan. To be sure, there have been all sorts of talks with Taliban leadership over the past several years, but it does feel like they are using negotiations as a means of running out the clock, given their awareness of the American intention to withdraw almost all troops at the end of 2014. Thus, a key lesson may be to start negotiating at the edges of the insurgent and terrorist network, much as was done in Iraq. Far from being too complex an organization to negotiate with, a network actually allows many entry points, many ways to take off a slice here and there. Such a shift in negotiating strategy -- from dealing with Taliban "leaders" to reaching out to field commanders and bands of fighters -- is far more likely to succeed and, at a minimum, will throw the enemy on the strategic defensive at this critical juncture.

Overall, the historical record suggests there is much to commend the notion of negotiating with terrorists. Talks must be undertaken with much care and caution, and war-war must continue while the parties jaw-jaw. But the potential for finding the way to peace, even in the most pernicious conflicts, is far too good to overlook.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Beijing's 'Bitskrieg'

How China is revolutionizing warfare.

As the Pentagon's annual report to Congress, released last week, makes abundantly clear, China is on something of a long march in cyberspace. While most attention is being drawn to the report's assertions about Chinese snooping into sensitive classified areas and theft of intellectual property from leading American firms -- and others around the world -- there is some intriguing analysis of Beijing's broader aims as well. Indeed, the Pentagon sees a clear progression in Chinese strategic thought that, viewed as a whole, begins to elaborate what might be seen as an emerging military doctrine enabled by advanced information technologies. Just as the radio made skillful coordination of tanks and planes possible, introducing World War II-era blitzkrieg, so today the computer may be opening new vistas for cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions, and other smart weapons.

What's coming from Beijing is, in a word, "bitskrieg." The Pentagon report describes this as a three-phase process. First, there is a "focus on exfiltrating data" so as to gain vital information needed about military command and control systems as well as the points in our critical infrastructure that are vulnerable to disruption by means of cyberattack. It is believed that the Chinese have been engaging in this sort of intelligence gathering for many years -- intrusions that Washington first openly acknowledged 10 years ago, giving them the code name "Titan Rain." It has been raining steadily for the past decade.

With all these data in hand, the second step -- per the Pentagon report -- is to use the same intrusive means that mapped our defense information systems to disrupt them with worms, viruses, and an assortment of other attack tools. The goal at this point is to slow the U.S. military's ability to respond to a burgeoning crisis or an ongoing conflict. Think of what might happen, say, on the Korean Peninsula, if our small contingent there -- a little over 25,000 troops -- were to lose its connectivity at the outset of a North Korean invasion by its million-man army. Without the ability to operate more nimbly than the attacker, these forces would be hard-pressed from the outset. Cyberattacks on mostly automated force-deployment and air-tasking systems could also slow the sending of reinforcements and greatly impede air interdiction operations. In the first Korean War, the Chinese intervened with massive numbers of troops. In the second one, they might only have to send electrons.

The real payoff for Beijing, though, is in what the Pentagon report describes as China's envisioned third phase of cyber-operations. This is the point at which the information advantage -- that is, the ability to coordinate one's own field operations while the adversary's have been completely disrupted -- is translated into material results in battle. The Pentagon describes cyberattack at this point as amounting to a major "force multiplier." Gaining such advantage means winning campaigns and battles with fewer casualties relative to those inflicted upon the enemy. In this respect, computer-driven "bitskrieg" could, it is thought, generate results like those attained by mechanized blitzkriegs -- which also aimed at disrupting communications. In the Battle of France in 1940, for example, where the Germans had fewer troops and tanks, the Allies lost more than four times the number of soldiers as the Wehrmacht.

When my long-time research partner David Ronfeldt and I introduced our concept of cyberwar 20 years ago, the second and third phases of cyberattack that the Pentagon report describes are what we had in mind. In our view, striking at an enemy's ability to maintain information flows, while keeping one's own communications secure, would be the key to gaining a war-winning advantage in conflicts to come. But this would only hold true, we affirmed, if senior leaders recognized that cyberwar poses "broad issues of military organization and doctrine."

The point being that technology alone doesn't create or sustain the advantage. In the case of blitzkrieg it was concentrating tanks in panzer divisions and closely linking them with attack aircraft that made the difference. To succeed at cyberwar, it will be necessary both to scale down large units into small ones and "scale them out" across the battlespace rather than mass them together. In this fashion -- spread out but completely linked and able to act as one -- the sweeping maneuvers of blitzkrieg will be supplanted by the swarming attacks of bitskrieg, characterized by the ability to mount simultaneous strikes from many directions. The guiding organizational concept for this new approach flows closely from technologist David Weinberger's thoughtful description of online networks: "small pieces, loosely joined."

Thus should the Pentagon annual report to Congress be delved into more deeply -- for the document reflects a clear awareness of, and takes a subtle, layered approach to thinking about, the Chinese cyber threat. One can only hope that the U.S. military analysis of Beijing's looming capacity for bitskrieg is mirrored by introspective views and similarly nuanced considerations of American capacities for waging cyberwar. For the three phases described in the Pentagon report -- so consistent with the original vision Ronfeldt and I described two decades ago -- reflect the kind of conflict that is coming.

The militaries of most advanced countries think of cyberwar as a new form of strategic attack on power grids and such. The Chinese view differs, seeing this mode of conflict as much less about turning off the lights for a while in some other country and much more about defeating an opposing military grown dependent upon sustained, secure, and ubiquitous flows of information. Lights can always be turned back on. Soldiers' lives lost amid the battlefield chaos caused by a bitskrieg can never be reclaimed. Thoughtful reading of the Pentagon report should affirm this -- and appropriate action, along the lines of scaling down and "scaling out" our forces, and encouraging them to "swarm," must follow.