Should Governments Negotiate With Terrorists?

This is the first installment in a series of online-only Roundtables. This new content form from the Crimson Editorial Board seeks to present a diverse array of high-quality student opinion on thought-provoking issues.

If you would like to submit an opinion for this week's Roundtable topic "Should women serve in combat roles in the military?", please e-mail your 200-300 word opinion to hpickerell@college.harvard.edu before Wednesday 6th February at 6pm.

Before It’s Too Late

It is unfortunate that the question of whether to negotiate with designated terrorists often comes up at moments of crisis, when governments are at their lowest point of leverage. This is to say, governments are much worse-poised to negotiate with elements they consider to be terrorists when the threat of violence is immediate than during times of relative calm, when state power and intelligence far outstrips the means of small terror cells and networks.

Although the wanton slaughters at the Tigantourine gas facility, Dubrovka Theater, and Lod Airport should not be minimized, it was clear in utilitarian terms to the Algerian, Russian, and Israeli governments during these moments of crisis that capitulating to terrorist demands would have been harmful to state interests and encouraged would-be terrorists lying in the woodwork. In 2011, contrary to this principle, Binyamin Netanyahu approved the release of 1,027 prisoners (responsible for the deaths of 569 Israeli civilians) to meet the demands of Hamas in order to secure the release of the kidnapped Corporal Gilad Shalit. As a consequence of the terrorists’ remarkable achievement, Palestinian moderates with less of a flair for drama and violent threats have come to seem impotent, given their inability to extract concessions without resorting to terror. Remarkably, the Israeli government continues to profess that it refuses to negotiate with terrorists—a line that only seems to hold when nothing is acutely wrong. This approach is the complete inverse of what reason would dictate. Operating on the assumption that terrorists are interest-driven creatures, governments ought to keep lines of communication open with anti-state extremists during quiet times—when the state can shape the terms of engagement—and respond to outbursts and standoffs with targeted force. This would deliver the message that acts of violence against civilians do not pay.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. He is the co-chair of Harvard Students for Israel.

Dramatic Act, Quiet Coda

As a rule, governments should not negotiate with terrorists. That is the consensus of the global community because it is understood that declaring this policy may deter acts of terror. The logic is simple: If aspiring terrorists expect that their demands will not be considered, they will not waste their resources taking hostages. But proving its efficacy requires knowing a counterfactual.  Non-negotiation with terrorists is the most reasonable declarative stance on an issue in which no stance can be definitely validated. Nothing about the events in Algeria should call this into question.

Nevertheless, the events in Algeria raise troubling questions on which, unlike negotiation with terrorists, there is no settled, reasoned consensus.

Consider, for example, that the situation in Mali escalated because the Tuareg revolt was coopted by an AQIM splinter group, Ansar Dine. An ethnic independence movement became an ideological terrorist campaign. That is what happened here, but it just as often appears elsewhere as a false narrative employed by repressive regimes to justify their refusal to grant rights and autonomy to minority groups.  Examine how China brands the Uighurs—a Muslim community seeking greater autonomy—as it rejects their aspirations: It identifies them with Islamic terrorism. When nations do not want to negotiate with minorities, they simply claim that they are refusing to negotiate with terrorists.

Above all, though, I suspect that the legacy of this crisis will be that it spurred the US to cement and expand its drone program, furthering its disturbing unilateral redefinition of norms about when, where, and why people can be killed. Ironically, the terrorists responsible for the Algeria crisis should not expect that they have won a voice through their vocal acts. Instead, they should expect to hear a haunting whir far overhead, and then, if only for a moment, a terrible crash: a sentence, issued from a bench unseen and unexplained, to the eternal silence of death.

Michael Mitchell ’14 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard International Review.

One Size Does Not Fit All

In his address to the Global Economic Forum in Davos last week, Algerian Foreign Minister, Mourad Medelci, admitted Algeria “made mistakes” in handling the hostage crisis at the BP gas plant but defended his government’s decision to launch a military operation rather than negotiate with the terrorists. The statement was issued no doubt in response to the criticism from the international community of Algeria’s decision to use military force rather than negotiation, which compromised the lives of dozens of foreign nationals.

Tags