Fighting and talking with armed groups can take many forms. Some states have fought, negotiated and then fought again. Others have fought and negotiated simultaneously. There are also instances of states facing multiple armed groups that have taken a discriminatory approach, fighting some while negotiating with others. This Adelphi draws on a number of different cases across the globe to examine what constitutes an effective and realistic strategy for dealing with armed groups, and develops a framework to help policymakers and analysts to understand the challenges involved in using a combination of coercion and diplomacy.

What constitutes an effective and realistic strategy for dealing with non-state armed groups? This question has bedevilled states the world over. Whether in Colombia, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, governments have struggled either to fight or negotiate their way to a conclusion. The conflicts in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka are the exceptions.

Fighting armed groups is an uncertain business, and so is negotiating. Doing both alternately, concurrently or selectively, is highly demanding. This book develops a framework to help analysts and policymakers understand the challenges of using a combination of coercion and diplomacy in dealing with armed groups. It considers which complexities have proved most inhibiting, and which have been worked around. What are the obvious traps that states fall into? What appear to be the smarter moves?

Thinking in terms of ‘military’ or ‘political’ solutions is unhelpful – a strategic approach requires a fusion of coercion and negotiation. Drawing on ten disparate cases, this Adelphi book draws clear lessons for the creation and execution of a coherent strategy for states involved in such conflicts, which often run for generations. 

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  • Introduction: The strategic art of confronting armed groups

    For states, it is acutely important to master the strategic art of dealing with non-state armed groups. Most wars of the past 30 years have been intra-state, albeit with varying amounts of outside interference. Often, a point comes when the governments involved conclude that military victory is not imminent and so attempt to open some sort of political track. Even after this realisation, securing a satisfactory outcome is hard. States...
  • Chapter One: The difficulties of accommodating or eliminating armed groups

    After 30 years of troubles, thousands of deaths, Northern Ireland … its daily life scarred … by sectarian bitterness … we agreed to shape a new future. Enemies would become not just partners in progress but sit together in government. People who used to advocate the murder of British ministers and security services, would be working with them. Tony Blair, 2002  In 30 years the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam]...
  • Chapter Two: Struggling to move from military stalemate to negotiations

    A mutually hurting stalemate defines the moment as ripe for resolution: both sides are locked in a situation from which they cannot escalate the conflict … [However], the asymmetry of internal conflict rarely produces the stalemate needed for negotiation. William Zartman Negotiation 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. Few, if any...
  • Chapter Three: The ruthless pragmatism of being selective and deceptive

    The West rejects militant struggles for freedom too readily. The US and Europe too often equate all militancy with terrorism. Pervez Musharraf, 2006 No-one has a moral right to tell us to talk to child killers. Why don’t you meet Osama Bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in...
  • Chapter Four: When partnerships of states confront armed groups

    If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar [to enable talks] the international community has two choices. Remove me or leave, if they disagree. If I am removed in the cause of peace for Afghanistan by force by them, then I will be very happy … But we are not at that stage yet. Hamid Karzai, 2008 The US has had trouble agreeing to a concrete timetable for withdrawal because...
  • Chapter Five: The lopsided strategies of very weak or very strong states

    I never removed the goal of toppling Hamas … When I look around and see ISIS moving toward Jordan and already in Lebanon, with Hezbollah there already, supported by Iran, I defined the goal in the cabinet of delivering a hard blow to Hamas, and we did that. Benjamin Netanyahu, 2014 The ultimatum that we gave them has expired. We have said that at any moment the Congolese army with [the...
  • Conclusion

    In all of the cases, governments opened a political track because they could not meet their objectives via the security track alone. The speed and enthusiasm with which they resorted to negotiations varied considerably. The differences derived in part from their relative strength and whether their primary interest was victory or survival. In Northern Ireland, the UK government used military force to create the conditions in which a political process could...

Samir Puri lectures in War Studies at King’s College London. He previously worked for the UK Foreign Office (2009–15) and RAND (2006–09).

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