See the pattern

Why the past month's events in Afghanistan, Thailand and Pakistan show that peace deals are the wrong way to deal with terrorists.

NATO in Afghanistan (photo credit: AP)
NATO in Afghanistan
(photo credit: AP)
It has been a bad month for advocates of negotiations with terrorists: Three different peace initiatives in three different countries have collapsed bloodily, and in each case, even former proponents now admit that far from helping, they made things worse.
  • In Afghanistan, tribal elders of the Musa Qala district brokered a deal last October under which British troops, Afghan policemen and Taliban forces all pulled out of the district's main town (also called Musa Qala), though the Taliban did not disarm. Some senior Afghan officials were skeptical from the start, but others hailed the deal, as did local residents and foreign military officials and diplomats. "If it works, and so far it appears to work, it could be a pointer to similar understandings elsewhere," one foreign diplomat told The New York Times in December. Abdul Ali Seraj, the nephew of a former Afghani king, similarly told the Times: "Musa Qala is the way to do it. Sixty days since the agreement, and there has not been a shot fired." Last month, however, the Taliban returned in force and overran the town, burning the government compound, arresting the elders (who brokered the deal) and threatening them with death. The situation became so bad that the elders took the unusual step of begging the Afghani government and NATO to expel the Taliban by force, even if that required bombing the town.
  • In Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf's government brokered a deal last September with tribal leaders in North Waziristan, a hotbed of al-Qaida and Taliban activity. In it, the tribal leaders promised to end support for both al-Qaida activity and cross-border attacks against Afghanistan, while seven members of the local Taliban council, who also signed, explicitly pledged that "there will be no cross-border movement for militant activity in neighboring Afghanistan." In exchange, Musharraf withdrew all government troops, pledged to end air and ground operations against the Taliban and agreed to release all detainees. Each side also agreed to return any weapons and equipment seized during the previous three years of fighting. The deal elicited some skepticism in Washington and Kabul, but Musharraf touted it in both capitals as a major breakthrough in the war on terror. Last month, however, American officials told The New York Times that since the agreement was signed, cross-border attacks against Afghanistan from Pakistan have tripled. Moreover, the truce appears to have enabled the battered al-Qaida leadership to regroup: Intelligence indicates that al-Qaida training camps have been set up in the region, and the frequency and timeliness of statements issued by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri indicate that the al-Qaida leaders are no longer having trouble communicating safely with the outside world.
  • In Thailand, whose south has suffered from a vicious Muslim insurgency for three years, the junta that overthrew former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra last September also reversed his hard-line anti-terrorist policies. Coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin, himself a Muslim, gave Muslims key positions in the new administration, including the prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, and the interior minister, a proponent of instituting Shari'a law in Muslim-majority provinces. Boonyaratglin also offered to negotiate with insurgency leaders, launched a rapprochement with neighboring Malaysia (the insurgents are mainly ethnic Malays) and revived an administrative system that gave the south's local leaders more input into policy. Chulanont publicly apologized for Thaksin's policies and ordered police and soldiers in the south to be less aggressive. And, according to the International Herald Tribune, southern Thais welcomed these initiatives, hoping that they would bring peace. Instead, the violence worsened dramatically, culminating in 28 coordinated bombings last month that killed or injured some 60 people. In a New York Times article a week later, experts lined up to describe how badly the situation had deteriorated. Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch noted that "Buddhist monks have been hacked to death, clubbed to death, bombed and burned to death" in an effort to inflame sectarian tensions; "this has never happened before." Schoolteachers and schools have also been favorite targets. Francesca Lawe-Davies of the International Crisis Group warned that "insurgent groups are actually starting to control territory in a more conventional sense." Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a Thai academic, said: "The separatists can pick and choose the time and place of the violence without any effective resistance." And southern residents of both faiths told the Times that "they have never been so frightened." Even Chulanont publicly admitted last month that his policies were not working, and he has reverted to a military approach: He sent another 20,000 troops to the region and ordered checkpoints established along key roads. In each of the above cases, it turned out that what the terrorists wanted was not peace or redress for their "grievances," but a respite from military pressure that was impairing their capacity to operate effectively. And in each case, once they had recovered and regrouped, they resumed waging war with redoubled vigor. A single case could have been considered a fluke. But when the same thing happens simultaneously in three different countries, it cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence. Rather, it indicates a pattern: This is how Islamic terrorists operate. And other Islamic terrorist groups are likely to behave similarly. Anyone familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will recognize this pattern: Here, too, every truce or formal agreement has ultimately led to renewed terror once the terrorists regrouped. The world, however, has always insisted that if Israel would just keep making concessions, the terrorists would eventually be satisfied. Last month's events are unlikely to shatter this international consensus; that will probably require additional sad experience. But they ought at least to prompt intelligent people of goodwill to start questioning whether deals with terrorists are really the best way to bring peace, or whether, as occurred in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Thailand, they are merely recipes for greater violence. And this in turn ought to prompt serious contemplation of the unpleasant alternative: that perhaps the only solution is to militarily degrade the terrorists' capabilities to the point where they are no longer able to fight. Or in other words, that achieving peace might require waging war.