Here’s a goofy idea. Why don’t we negotiate with network insurgencies? We cannot for the same reason why assassinations do not work – decentralized leadership.

Thailand discovered this problem recently. In 10,000 years of recorded history, the art of diplomacy has never figured out how to “negotiate” with decentralized organizations. States negotiate with hierarchical organized tribes, corporations and other states. In all this time no one figured out how to negotiate with non-hierarchical non-state actors – that’s probably because you cannot

So anyway, some fools want to try it anyway and open diplomacy with al-Qaeda.

Jan Egeland suggests negotiations with al-Qaeda, but basically rejects it as infeasible. I agree, but let’s look:

Six years after the September 11 attacks, a few cautious voices are beginning to suggest the unthinkable — maybe it is time to consider talking to al Qaeda.

The idea will revolt some people and raises obvious questions — through what channels could such a dialogue take place and what would there be to negotiate?

But proponents say al Qaeda has established itself as a de facto power, whether the West likes it or not, and history shows militant movements are best neutralized by negotiation, not war.

I always disregard moral bluster anyway. So is this pragmatic?
Before other questions get asked, figure out who you are negotiating with and how much power he has over the organization. What are his interests, what power does he have to get what he wants?

So who do they even wish to speak with?
1) There is no single unitary “al-Qaeda” organization. It acts the base for a confederation of Islamist Insurgencies.
2) Al-Qaedaism is an ideology more than an organization
3) These are network insurgencies, not hierarchical insurgencies.

Diplomacy works only when you engage other hierarchical organizations.

So let’s reduce the war to it’s basic level. Take Thailand. The Islamist rebels have no clear rebel government or leadership.

Look at the fighting units of highly decentralized networks. The network has no clear leadership. Guerrilla operate small cells, roughly 12-100 men or so. Each cell has autonomous or semi-autonomous leaders. They share resources and skills through market contracts.

The redundancy of leaders at the local level of an Islamist insurgency renders them virtually immune to assassination and disruption campaigns. Removing a leader allows the network to adapt and reconnect to a new leader who will take his place.

Diplomacy functions in the same way as assassination – it isolates a leader and negotiates for a compromise. Cells can easily reject a weak leader and switch to a new one.

Go up to the country-wide insurgency. It consists of numerous different groups – whether this is Thailand, Indonesia, Iraq, Algeria, Afghanistan. This includes the Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists, criminal organizations, tribes, nationalists, and various disgruntled reformers. Each fight for a mixture of ideological, pragmatic, and local political objectives. Their goals are not the same.

Now go up one more level to Al-Qaeda acting as the base for the Global Islamist Insurgency. Does the small al-Qaeda unit hiding in the mountains of Pakistan have real power and control over network insurgencies across the world?

There seems to be an extreme dilution of power because of the massive number of leaders involved. Each leader has his own separate reasons for fighting which may not have anything to do with Osama bin Laden.

If Osama bin Laden met with diplomats and the made a compromise. The US would sign the Kyoto accord and abolish taxation (>??) and Osama promises to lay down his arms. What exactly happens next? How does this affect the insurgents fighting for separatism in Thailand, in Chenya, Indonesia, Xinjiang?

Osama is a symbol and you cannot negotiate with symbols. Assassinating him would not destabalize al-Qaeda’s organization either.

Reasonable objectives pose another problem. Al-Qaeda’s stated objectives are “maximalist” and values-oriented rather than pragmatic and material. Their reason for fighting is not interested in scraps of land or extra material resources, but a revolution.

Conferring legimitacy is another concern, but a relatively minor one if this was practical in the first place.

Of course, this is assuming any insurgent leaders even want to negotiate in the first place. The Thai insurgents flat-out refuse.

“The liberation of our land and our people is the only goal,” said the leader, cited by the pseudonym Loh in the report. “We have learned from the past that negotiations with Thai authorities would weaken our movement by making our members subject to compromise, co-optation, and bribery.”

First, I will say that the US and its allies are already negotiating with elements of Al-Qaeda. This can be called the “disaggregation strategy.” The core idea is divide and conquer. You separate and disconnect different insurgent groups from each other. If you notice that the tribes want something pragmatic and they have concerns about the criminals and revolutionaries, you can negotiate with the tribes and disassociate them from the rest of the insurgency.

The US is disaggregating the Taliban, the Jaish al-Mahdi, and al-Qaeda in Iraq through a mixture of negotiations. So yes, the US is already negotiating with small cells and individuals within al-Qaeda, but it knows better than to waste its time trying to negotiation with a nonexistent central hierachy with command and control powers.

And for the record, I’m tired of hearing how “militant movements are best neutralized by negotiation, not war.” That is such tripe. It’s like saying wet sidewalks cause rain. War is about politics – until the political question comes to its conclusion the war continues.

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