Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Dancing in the Dark

Secret negotiations are under way between French diplomats and parties unknown to secure the release of two journalists taken hostage by terrorists in Iraq. The curious thing about the French strategy so far is it is anchored on the explicit assertion that they are hors de combat, that is, not included in the struggle between "militants" and the United States. In order to bolster this claim, the French have obtained character references from Hamas, Yasser Arafat and Moqtada Al-Sadr. According to the Christian Science Monitor "Islamic militant group Hamas joined groups including French Muslims opposed to the headscarf ban, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and aides to anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in urging freedom for the journalists." Hamas spelled it out the rationale for releasing the Frenchmen:

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas in the Gaza Strip, said that France has adopted “a positive stand,” over Iraq because it opposed the US-led war to topple Saddam Hussein. Paris has also shown an "understanding position" toward the Palestinian cause, he said. "Releasing the two French journalists would increase the isolation of hostile American and Israeli attitudes toward the Arab and Muslim nations, and would boost French support for our aspirations," Abu Zuhri added.

The Quai d'Orsay of course, would put it rather differently. Reacting to accusations from the Iraqi Prime Minister that France was learning that its policy of appeasement was untenable, the French Foreign Ministry responded loftily and with not a little touch of indignation.

"These declarations seem, in effect, to cast doubt on France's determination in the fight against terrorism," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that France had called for a political solution in Iraq since the start of the crisis. The French authorities have, for a long time, affirmed the necessity and urgency to mobilise against all forms of terrorism. France, which has itself been a victim of terrorist attacks, leads unrelentingly a determined action against this plague."

There's a reason the French are world leaders in the manufacture of perfume.


Here's an interesting game theoretic analysis of the terrorist hostage-taking tactic from Zak. The underscores are mine.

It is clear that the kidnappings in Iraq are what they call a “repeated (or iterated) game,” which means in game theory that the results from one round of the game influence the actions taken by both players in the next round. In the case of the kidnappings, the game is repeated because the kidnappers get good publicity and most likely money under the table each time they kidnap somebody. There doesn’t have to be a clear “win” every time like with the Filipinos (who withdrew their force when a truckdriver was kidnapped) to make the game worth playing for them. They still get something every time they play (if only publicity), so there is no reason for them to quit. Frankly, they’d be stupid to quit. Would you if you found a slot machine in Vegas that kept coming up 777?

The trick is to change the incentive structure of the game. I think this is easy: just have any country whose citizen has been kidnapped pledge to send a thousand (or other arbitrarily large number) more troops to Iraq for every individual kidnapped. As each kidnapping made things harder and harder for the kidnappers, and instead resulted in negative publicity for them (in the form of more foreign soldiers in the country because of their actions), I think the game would come to a conclusion really, really quickly.

Of course, this would require both cooperation and political will on the part of the participants, so don’t look for this obvious and most likely effective strategy to be taken any time soon.

It's an idea in the right direction, but I'm not sure it would be so easy. Basically, the idea is penalize the enemy for every turn he takes at the murder game till he gives up playing it. The problem is that most nations, and most certainly Nepal, lack the ability to penalize terrorists effectively by sending professional forces. Meting out a negative payment is hard for them to do. One way around this for poor victims is to inflict proxy punishment on an easy target. That's what collective retribution is about; and when Russians blow up Chechen towns or round up relatives of terrorists in retaliation they are essentially dealing out negative payouts. But in the end, terrorists who are hardened to killing are indifferent even to the fates of their relatives. In the last analysis the terrorists and their masterminds have to be killed individually. Just my two cents.