Thursday, March 26, 2009

Negotiating With Terrorists

It appears that five Britons, held as hostages in Iraq for almost two years, are about to be released. The Guardian claims that their captors have struck a deal to trade one of the hostages for ten militants currently held by the US. If it comes to pass, it seems likely similar arrangements will lead to the others being freed too.

You could be forgiven for not knowing about the five Britons. In contrast to some past hostage cases, such as Ken Bigley, there's been almost no media coverage about the men. Partly this is because of who they are. One is a computer consultant, while the others are described as security consultants, which is so vague it seems certain they're linked to British intelligence in some way. The other main reason we've heard so little is because, all this time, the British government has been doing what it says it doesn't do, negotiating with terrorists. And the British didn't want anything about that in the media, to avoid upsetting the delicate discussions.

Governments habitually say they don't negotiate with terrorists, presumably because it's the sort of thing the public expects to hear. After all, politicians don't want to sound soft on terror. But in reality, it's nonsense. Talking to the enemy to try to reach mutually satisfactory solutions on particular issues is just as big a part of countries' struggle against terrorism today as it has been throughout the history of conventional war. The US and Britain probably don't want to let the Sadrist militants go, but it's a better choice than doing nothing or trying a risky rescue mission, and even that last possibility would depend on finding out where the five are being held. Even though they don't admit it in public, politicians all over the world know that sometimes negotiating with the enemy is the least worst option.

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