August 2, 2007

Negotiating with the Wrong People

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While many nations including the United States have long refused to negotiate with terrorists, the latest hostage crisis in Afghanistan has renewed the debate over the policy of non-negotiation. Not only did the Taliban kidnap 23 innocent Christian missionaries from South Korea, demanding an exchange for Taliban prisoners, but they have also killed some of the hostages already, ratcheting up the pressure to cut a deal to save the rest. Even if South Korea and the Afghan government find a way to buy more time for the hostages, it may not help the seriously ill hostages who face the prospect of death merely by remaining in captivity. Despite the compelling reasons to negotiate in this scenario, however, the policy of non-negotiation has been practiced for many sound reasons that hold true today like they always have.

First of all, terrorists are not exactly trustworthy. They do not always honor their deals. This takes place not only when they flagrantly refuse to hold up their own end of the deal, but also when they creatively reinterpret any deal to their favor. Based on how Islamic extremists reinterpret the Quran, one could easily see them reinterpreting a lot with their perverted worldview. In these negotiations, the other side is not a civilized leader of a respectable democratic nation. It’s not even an Iranian leader who despite his craziness has to worry about both the effect of sanctions on his nation as well as the many Iranians who have cooled to his hard-line views. The other side engages in terrorism! They do not think rationally. In the case of the Korean hostages, there is even a precedent for this irrational behavior noted by The Times; the Taliban has already broken a truce which should have lasted until Wednesday at noon, prematurely killing one of the hostages. Given all of this, it can not possibly be rational at all to deal with such irrational people.

While negotiating for the release of hostages may pay off in the short term, in the longer term this strategy will always backfire. For one, the chance of more abductions and hostage-taking increases. The idea is quite simple; if the terrorists can get cash, weapons, prisoners releases, or anything in exchange for a nation’s hostages, they will be more inclined to take hostages again. Why take hostages from a nation that strongly refuses to negotiate with terrorists when the terrorists can instead choose a nation who will willingly and openly negotiate? Furthermore, any nation on group that gives the terrorists anything at all in exchange for hostages essentially has supplied and fueled their army. Nobody’s tax money should be going to the Taliban.

And these dangers are more than mere hypothetical scenarios. Right now, as The Guardian reports, Germany is currently considering ending its policy of paying ransoms because of these exact concerns. Especially disturbing to them is the prospect that these ransom payments ultimately amount to “money which is eventually used to buy weapons which are used to kill our soldiers in Afghanistan.” While Germany is beginning to learn their lesson the hard way, the government of Afghanistan has already wised up against the tactics of the Taliban. According to Al-Jazeera, the Afghan government refuses to exchange Taliban prisoners for hostages, citing the fact that they do not want to encourage more hostage-taking in the future.

Furthermore, while al Qaeda has long relied on hostage-taking, this tactic can quickly spread to others. Often home-grown terrorist cells or insurgents in Iraq will adapt the tactics of al Qaeda. In fact, the Christian Science Monitor reports that the Taliban’s shift to hostage-taking reflects the influence of al Qaeda. Furthermore, some insurgent groups in Iraq as well as less radical organizations probably are on the border on deciding whether or not to kidnap innocent civilians. But if hostage-taking can prove to be a viable strategy, they have to reconsider. Ultimately, to stop the spread of hostage-taking to other, less radical organizations, as well as the extremely radical ones which already exist, the world has to send a message that hostage-taking and coercion will not work. Those who oppose us can sense any weakness we have, and they will often exploit these weaknesses to their advantage so long as any nation will play by their rules.

Nobody who refuses to negotiate with the Taliban wants to see these hostages die. Nonetheless, they see the bigger picture in this entire situation. Although the policy of non-negotiation may unfortunately spell doom for the Christian missionaries, these hostages, unlike the Taliban prisoners they could be exchanged for, will not die with a bomb strapped to their chest in a crowded marketplace. And as blunt as that may sound, it may very well be the truth of the matter.

Mike Wacker is a blogger and an Assistant Web Editor at The Sun. He can be contacted at mwacker@cornellsun.com.