Negotiating with terrorists

Recently the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels (the official name being the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE) broke down and there has been a rapid escalation of violence with large numbers of casualties on both sides and, inevitably, civilians bearing the brunt of it and being forced to flee their homes.

The US government has been trying to get the warring parties to desist from fighting and get back to the negotiating table, and two senior State Department officials have gone to the region to try and move the negotiation process along.

The United States has said that it strongly supported peace talks between Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers as there was no military solution for the conflict in the island nation.
But the US also asserted that it would not deal with the rebels who use reprehensible and bloody tactics to kill innocent people.

“We believe that there is no military solution for this kind, and we are strong supporters of negotiations,” Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told a round table of South Asian journalists.

Meanwhile Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, said that “hostilities must cease and both sides need to exercise maximum restraint.” He went on:

“We are pleased that the government and the LTTE are committed to peace talks to go to Geneva and to begin discussions again.”

“We think it is important to discuss all the issues. It is also important to begin a process that can lead to a serious negotiation, and eventually, to a political solution with legitimate interest of all the communities: of Tamils, Muslims of Sinhalese,” Mr. Richard Boucher told the press.

“It can be accommodated with a unitary Sri Lanka.”

Accepting that a military solution was not likely to occur shows a sense of realism, and encouraging talks and negotiations are worthy goals. The reason I highlight them is because the Tamil Tigers have been designated by the US State Department as a terrorist organization. Hence these actions seem to be in contradiction with the oft-stated US government policy of never negotiating with terrorists or with so-called state sponsors of terrorism.

I have never agreed with that policy. You should be willing to talk with anybody because that is the only way you get to understand your opponents and it may even lead to a non-violent solution.

But it looks like the US policy applies only to selected groups of terrorists. Or perhaps the US government does not talk to certain ‘terrorists’ not out of any lofty principle, but because it serves their own political interests.

POST SCRIPT: Privacy? We don’t need no stinkin’ privacy!

Here’s a wonderful and short animated cartoon about the NSA wiretapping of phones.


  1. says

    Politians in TamilNadu, not only Politicians, cine stars also started supporting LTTE now. Director Seemaans speech creates the fire among the persons. Now only peoples in TamilNadu are started thinking about Srilankan tamils.
    Hope new US govt will take good decision and make full stop for this war.

  2. Keith Comess says

    Are you familiar with Mao’s treatise, “On Guerilla War”? The 1978 edition was published with the translator’s introduction by General Samuel B. Griffith II. Griffith wrote: “Revolutions rarely compromise: compromises are made only to further the strategic design. Negotiation, then, is undertaken for the dual purpose of gaining time to buttress a position (military, political, social, economic) and to wear down, frustrate and harass the opponent.”

    Do you think Griffith is just a hackneyed militarist and jingoist? Think again: he won the Silver Star in combat on Guadalcanal. He followed that with his D.Phil. in Chinese Military History in 1961 (Oxford University, New College). He translated Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” in 1963 (and, “On Guerrilla War”). He also wrote a major study of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. In other words, he knew the subject of liberationists/terrorists/revolutionists/revolutionary armies as well as, and probably better than most, not only from academic study but from military experience.

    Not withstanding his pithy observation, consider instead the experience of many, many other amateur (and professional) negotiators who have left a lamentable trail of wasted time and effort and whose sometimes stupid intercessions have needlessly prolonged conflicts with considerable additional loss of life.

    Engaging in open ended “talks” without any preconditions (or worse, with an patently obvious goal in mind by the probable loser: winners don’t need to talk) is futile and generally counterproductive. Remember Chamberlain in Munich? Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk? Kissinger in Paris?

    Furthermore, consider this observation of the effects of premature “talks” on the morale of the combatants who may/may not be defending the “right” side: “One does not propose to soldiers to go and get killed for an imprecise final objective…This is the difference, moreover, between the mercenary army and the citizen’s army.” The author? Gen Challe, French Algerian Forces, 1959, Battle of Algiers. The French lost, not due to military defeat, but rather due to loss of support from the domestic power elites. I hasten to add that I make this observation without regard to whether the French were right or wrong in Algeria. Personally, I assume they needed to get out.

    I could go on…but, I’m sure you get the point.

  3. says


    Actually, I am not sure what the point is. Is it that one must continue to wage war to the finish without talking? If one loses as a result of negotiations, it may mean that either one’s position was not strong to begin with or one’s negotiators are not very good.

    The label ‘terrorist’ itself is used arbitrarily to simply justify not talking to a particular group.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *