Tuesday, 18 March 2008

TOP BLAIR AIDE: WE MUST TALK TO AL-QAIDA

Former No 10 chief says Irish peace process
showed link to enemy needed


Ian Katz
Saturday, March 15 2008
The Guardian

Western governments must talk to terror groups including al-Qaida and
the Taliban if they hope to secure a long-term halt to their
campaigns of violence, according to the man who for more than a
decade was Tony Blair's most influential aide and adviser.

Jonathan Powell, who served as Blair's chief of staff from 1995 to
2007 and is widely regarded as having been instrumental in
negotiating a settlement in Northern Ireland, said his experience in
the province convinced him that it was essential to keep a line of
communication open even with one's most bitter enemies.

Powell said: "There's nothing to say to al-Qaida and they've got
nothing to say to us at the moment, but at some stage you're going to
have to come to a political solution as well as a security solution.
And that means you need the ability to talk."

In his first major interview, ahead of the publication of his book on
the behind the scenes drama leading to the Northern Ireland peace
deal, Powell also delivered a remarkably candid assessment of the
Blair years, revealing that:

· He did not think Labour had governed boldly enough because it
feared losing power.

· Blair had a tendency to change his mind about things and could be
"a bit of a flippertygibbet".

· Blair had failed in 10 years of government to sell Europe to the
British.

· Relations between the Blair and Brown camps were so toxic that
Gordon Brown did not talk to him for 10 years.

Powell, the most senior member of the Blair circle to survive the
prime minister's full term in office, said that he had realised,
after reviewing government papers and his diaries, that a secret back
channel between the British government and the IRA, first opened in
the 1970s, was one of the key factors that contributed to a peace
deal three decades later.

"It's very difficult for democratic governments to do - talk to a
terrorist movement that's killing your people," he said. "[But] if I
was in government now I would want to have been talking to Hamas, I
would be wanting to communicate with the Taliban; and I would want to
find a channel to al-Qaida."

Powell's remarks will be highly controversial, as all western
governments have insisted any contact with al-Qaida would be immoral
and pointless. A spokesman for the Foreign Office said last night:
"It is inconceivable that HMG would ever seek to reach a mutually
acceptable accommodation with a terrorist organisation like
al-Qaida."

The government's position on the Taliban and Hamas has been more
nuanced: it did communicate with the Palestinian group for a period
through an MI6 officer, but broke off contact and now insists Hamas
must recognise Israel and end violence before talks can resume. In
December Brown ruled out talking to the Taliban leadership, but said
he would "support [Afghanistan's] President Karzai in his efforts at
reconciliation".

Powell, whose book, Great Hatred, Little Room, will be serialised
exclusively in the Guardian from Monday, conceded that the idea of
talking to al-Qaida and the Taliban was fraught with practical
problems: "Who do you talk to? And what do you actually have to talk
about?" [...]

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