It is frequently argued that to engage with armed groups is to legitimise violence, or give credibility to unreasonable or non-negotiable demands. Moreover, we live in a time when engaging with armed groups, especially those that are branded as terrorists, is becoming less and less the norm. But, as President Carter and others note, the terrorist label is overused. In the name of security policy and the 'war on terror', the preferred course of action for dealing with many armed groups is to proscribe and shun them in the hopes that they will somehow wither away or be eradicated by military force. Several critical arguments are made throughout this volume that push for the opposite policy – one that takes as a given the critical importance of engaging with armed groups and making some form of engagement the norm rather than a concession. Mo Mowlam argues that, "you don't fight terrorism with weapons and bullets. You fight it by talking to them."
There are several lines of argument that emerge from the volume on why engagement, per se, is important:
The need to protect the local population
While engagement with armed groups by states can involve complex issues of international law, state sovereignty and national interest, the issue is fundamentally about improving the lives of the local populations who are the victims of conflict. As Steven Smith notes in his case study about ceasefire talks in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, notwithstanding the political tug of war between Congolese and international political actors over the peace process, the one certainty was that the local population would bear the brunt of continued fighting. Across the case studies, whether in Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Burma, Sudan, Colombia or elsewhere, the one constant is the peril faced by the local population and the humanitarian imperative to protect them. While this imperative does not provide a blanket justification for engagement in all cases, it does establish a default presumption that at least minimal levels of engagement are often warranted. Local communities' attitudes to engagement – including their capacities to act as third-parties in their own conflicts – are a good barometer against which to test proposed interventions.
Armed groups hold the key to ending violence
President Carter raises the simple yet powerful question of whom you would engage with to stop a conflict or human rights abuse if not the people involved in the conflict or perpetrating the human rights violation. It is sometimes argued that armed groups should demonstrate adherence to international humanitarian law as a precondition for any kind of dialogue. However, reality on the ground may make this an unrealistic demand. Clem McCartney points out that some groups might see violence as a tactic while others may see it as a valid statement and possibly the only statement they can make. Indeed the responsibility to protect can provide a compelling argument to explore every option for ending the violence. Further, several case studies document the negative consequences of engaging with certain armed groups but not others. Lam Akol attributes shortcomings in one of the phases of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) to the failure to include all the affected armed groups in the negotiation process. Ilyas Akhmadov describes the negative impact of the international community working with the Russian-backed Chechen administrator over leaders of the Chechen resistance. Lastly, Alastair Crooke describes the negative consequences for the Middle East peace process of the international community's reluctance to deal with Islamist as opposed to secular Palestinian groups.
Engagement increases the chance of a settlement process
Internal armed conflicts frequently end through dialogue and political negotiations. Even conflicts such as the Angolan civil war, which ended with the effective defeat of the armed group, had benefited from past peace negotiations on which the parties were able to build as they formalised the end of hostilities. However much opponents or external actors may prefer military force to pacific engagement, there will always be a need to come to the table at some point.
As a metaphor for the constant choice before armed groups, McCartney uses the image of a scale that weighs the factors that favour militancy on one side, and those that favour conflict transformation on the other side. The Karen case study presented by Saw David Taw is a vivid illustration of the dynamic interplay of the forces that favour political dialogue versus those that favour continued armed struggle. As McCartney points out, engagement can alter the decision-making scales. For example, Joaquín Villalobos points out that in El Salvador the international community's engagement with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) "facilitated the hegemony of moderate groups and leaders." This in turn made the FMLN more willing and able to participate in political negotiations. Sandi and Fortune explain how civil society groups helped bring the Revolutionary United Front to the negotiating table in Sierra Leone. Akol describes how the engagement of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement in the OLS process was a "turning point" for the movement in terms of its involvement in political dialogue.
Lack of engagement can strengthen hardliners
Just as engagement can have a positive influence on the choice of an armed group to opt for political dialogue, isolation or sanctions can in some circumstances make an armed group less inclined or able to participate in a peace process. Liz Philipson argues that the listing of the Communist Party of Nepal (the Maoists) as a terrorist organisation by the US has had little practical impact other than to strengthen those among the Maoists and the Nepalese army who favour fighting over negotiation. Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran provides a forceful account of the negative impacts of proscription from the perspective of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. Lastly, Akhmadov, speaking from a Chechen perspective, presents his analysis of the positive impacts of engagement versus the negative impacts of non-engagement. He explains that engagement in the sphere of interstate relations stimulated the Chechens to observe international standards, while the feeling that the international community was ignoring the moderate Chechen political leadership swelled the ranks of those who saw terrorism as the only way to advance their objectives.