Negotiating with Terrorists

Italy had five Taliban prisoners released in order to free a kidnapped journalist in Afghanistan. US and UK officials have criticized the move, though they didn’t prevent it, obviously. The standard logic behind such criticism is that negotiating with terrorists is a bad idea. Beyond the harm of having five bad guys back out in the world to do ill, the larger concern seems to be that this sends a message to other terrorist groups that will encourage further acts of kidnapping.

I wonder if there’s any evidence to support the US/UK line on this rather than the Italian position. Do terrorist acts really increase in the wake of such negotiations? It’s not like a terrorist organization is going to spend its resources on community service but then sees that kidnapping might be fruitful and decides to do that instead. Rather, terrorists have limited resources, and if they don’t pursue kidnappings they will probably just focus their time and energy on car bombings and things like that. I don’t see why there’s much of an increase in the overall badness in the world.

It’s always seemed questionable to me not to take simple steps that would save a hostage’s life based on speculation about how others will interpret the event and act in the future. Israel took a similarly hard line last summer in refusing to engage in prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, leading to a war that caused massive destruction in Lebanon and actually heightened the political clout of Hezbollah in the Middle East. We can’t predict future consequences, so why not save hostages whenever we can and redouble our efforts to eradicate terrorist groups by standard means?

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