In an Op-Ed in today's Boston Globe, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, associate director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard, puts forth the notion that the United States should supplement its military campaign against al-Qaeda with a complementary strategy of direct negotiations and if necessary, concessions. I believe that there's a lot of merit to this idea, especially the paradigm shift that the U.S. should treat al-Qaeda as an organized militia with a specific political and military agenda rather than as a gang of blood-thirsty apocalyptic fanatics. Certainly this would help most Americans to come to a better understanding of the otherwise baffling war on terror (perhaps one of the main reasons why the Bush administration hasn't tried it.) However, I'm not as optimistic as Mohamedou that such negotiations would actually lead to a cease-fire with al-Qaeda, at least not in any initial phase. I take from Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan (and one of the best informed and most insightful commentators on the war on terror) that al-Qaeda's goal is to overthrow all of what it considers the pro-Western puppet regimes in the Middle East. What bin Laden hopes will emerge, according to Cole, is some kind of Islamist super-state, preferably nuclear armed, with the capability of launching direct strikes against Israel and western targets, radically reducing the regional accommodation of the state of Israel and forcing western governments to withdraw their forces. Al-Qaeda thus envisions a reversal of what it perceives as a century of Muslim accommodation and humiliation at the hands of the imperialist west, and a renaissance of Islamic power.
Clearly, these goals cannot be reconciled with those of the United States. There is no possibility of a U.S. withdrawal from Muslim lands, nor will the U.S. withdraw its support for Israel. If negotations ever become possible, it will be as a result of U.S. victories in the war on terror forcing al-Qaeda to scale back its plans. The way things stand now, however, it doesn't seem as if al-Qaeda has any reason to negotiate. Bin Laden's grand vision of an Islamist neo-caliphate is halfway to realization, thanks to the folly of U.S. policy in Iraq, which could very well result in a new regional politics dominated by Iran.
In the long run Mohamedou may prove to be right. But real negotiations between al-Qaeda and the United States are at the moment so implausible, it's almost not worth talking about.