For all the headlines they grab, the kidnapping of European and Asian hostages in Iraq and Afghanistan is far from the worst of the many woes afflicting the two countries. But the damage caused by these incidents goes far beyond individual human tragedy, mostly thanks to the hapless reactions of the victims’ governments. Their willingness to pay huge ransoms for their citizens has turned hostage-taking into a highly profitable industry in both war zones. That has helped to finance the insurgencies, slowed down reconstruction and put even more Westerners at risk.
Around 300 Westerners have been abducted in Iraq since 2003, most of them journalists and aid workers. Sometimes the goal was political, such as the withdrawal of foreign troops or the release of prisoners, other times the kidnappers were just out for the money. Repeatedly, a criminal group took hostages and passed them on to a terrorist cell. While the number of foreign hostages in Iraq is declining because there are fewer and fewer Western civilians in Iraq, abductions have picked up in Afghanistan as the security situation deteriorated. The group of South Korean missionaries that have been held since July by the Taliban is just the most dramatic case. Last week, a German aid worker was taken from a crowded Kabul restaurant.
Every time Westerners are captured, the home front goes into high gear: crisis session of the cabinet, special envoys to the region, constant reports in the media. Even though no Western government has ever admitted that it actually paid ransom to the abductors, it has become an open secret that Germany, France and Italy would rather pay up than risk a highly publicized death of a citizen.
Germany paid 5 million euros ($6.7 million) in 2005 for the release of archaeologist Susanne Osthoff and coughed up 10 million euros for two abducted engineers last year. Italy went a step further earlier this year when it pressured the Afghan government to release several Taliban prisoners in exchange for an Italian newspaper reporter. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi was sharply criticized in other European countries, not for doing everything to help a citizen, but for openly admitting his cave-in.
Still the biggest ransom ever paid by a European government was the French deal with Libya’s strongman Muammar Qaddafi to secure the release of six Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian-born doctor who were falsely accused of deliberately infecting some 400 Libyan children with HIV. Shortly after a high-profile release engineered by First Lady Cecilia Sarkozy, her husband, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, announced a million dollar deal involving arms and civilian nuclear technology.
Remarkably, most European governments would think twice before they make concessions to domestic kidnappers. During the left-wing terror in the 1970s, Germany at first agreed to prisoner exchanges with the Red Army Faction, but refused to budge when RAF militants kidnapped leading industrialist Hans-Martin Schleyer 20 years ago and killed him after more than a month of captivity.
When it comes to abductions in foreign countries, European governments feel obliged to act to protect their citizens. With law enforcement impotent and military action unacceptable, they prefer to pay quietly and get the case behind them.
These payments seem politically unavoidable and sometimes even opportune. Public opinion may accept dozens of traffic deaths every week, but demands that everything is done to save the life of a hostage, even when these people deliberately chose to expose themselves to the risk of kidnapping or lived abroad for decades. The return of hostages is celebrated as a human triumph, and rarely anybody asked how their freedom was achieved.
The consequences of these payments are disastrous, however. Due to the weakness of their governments, Germans, French and Italian citizens are coveted targets for both terrorist and criminal groups. Every payment has put fellow citizens at risk, making it virtually impossible for Westerners to work in Iraq — and increasingly also Afghanistan. “If you are a terrorist the perception is that Germany pays for hostages and that is problematic,” said Nick Pratt, a former CIA operative now working as a terrorism expert in Germany. The growing risk of abduction has also dashed the hope that European experts will come and help with reconstruction and development and added to the economic woes of both countries.
Among the European nations, only Britain refuses to pay ransom or even negotiate with hostage-takers. The U.S. and Israel also claim to take such a principled stance, but are known to make exceptions. The Reagan administration went so far as to sell arms to arch foe Iran to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon. Israel has repeatedly agreed to “prisoner’s exchanges” with terrorist groups, leading both Hamas and Hezbollah to believe that they can get a similar deal when they abduct Israeli soldiers. Ehud Olmert refused, but starting a full-fledged war turned out to be at least as bad.
For a government, a hostage drama is what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma: Paying ransom is the better option in the short run, but it hurts everyone else. At least the German government has realized that its generous ransom payments in Iraq are now making German citizens enticing targets in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Even if it puts individual hostages at risk, Western governments have to band together and agree not to give in to blackmail of terrorists and criminals. Collective action would truly benefit all.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.