Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Paul Buchanan: Contrary courage a costly venture

Lost amid the drama of the Christian Peacemaker Team hostage-taking and rescue in Iraq are two sub-plots of some import. One is psychological and the other is legal and fiscal.

On the psychological front is the mental disposition of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) hostages themselves.

Although they are to be admired for the courage of their convictions and the fact that they actually engage in direct action rather than just talk, the CPT workers held captive in Iraq display traits remarkably akin to those of Islamic jihadists and Iraqi resistance fighters - they are willing to put themselves in suicidal positions for a cause.

They may well see themselves as helpers and facilitators for peace, but in going to Iraq against all reasoned advice, in the middle of a combined war of resistance against occupation and sectarian strife between primordial interests, they assured themselves of a brush with death. This is known as the martyr complex, although to be fair, perhaps these men were exhibiting it unwittingly.

This may be because the activists involved - including New Zealand resident Harmeet Sooden - had previously undertaken missions in Palestine in opposition to the Israeli occupation. Perhaps they thought Baghdad would be equivalent and the risk would be the same. They were wrong.

In Palestine, foreign peacemakers are received by a largely sympathetic population confronting a relatively "soft" occupation.

The Israeli Government and Palestinian authorities are acutely conscious of the public relations value of Western civilian peacemakers, so both sides work hard to ensure the safety of those individuals.

In Iraq the failures of US planning, and conflicts between Iraqi political elites, have led to a security vacuum that has been filled by armed groups of various stripes, including criminal as well as political organisations.

With sectarian violence approaching civil war and with desperation levels among the population at a breaking point, fear and loathing of Westerners are at an all-time high, regardless of the motive that brings them to Iraq. Rather than being seen as helpers and facilitators, they are perceived as interlopers and, increasingly, as easy sources of cash if kidnapped for ransom.

Such was the case with Sooden and his companions.

Some have commented that, in demanding that no force be used in securing their release and in belatedly thanking their military rescuers and reportedly not co-operating with Coalition authorities (including Canadians) in the intelligence debriefing that followed their liberation, the hostages were not only exhibiting a martyr complex but also the so-called Stockholm Syndrome.

This is a situation where captives begin to sympathise with their captors as a result of physical and emotional dependency.

That is not what has happened in this instance for one simple reason. Unlike most kidnap victims, Sooden and his friends were sympathetic to their captors long before they were taken.
Their mission in Iraq was to document Coalition atrocities and violations, and they fully empathised with those who, by choice or not, employed kidnapping and extortion as a means of financial redress or political statement. In this instance the motive was cash.

Although under duress in captivity, the CPT hostages understood the position of their captors. Unfortunately for the American captive Tom Fox, the US policy of not negotiating or paying ransom made him expendable, whereas the Canadian and British hostages had the benefit of Governments working to secure their release through negotiation - or counter-terrorism operations.

If nothing else, extending the timeframe of negotiations allowed Coalition security teams to develop actionable intelligence.

Whether as part of a negotiated settlement or as a result of good intelligence work leading to military rescue, the CPT hostages are now free.

That brings up the second point: who should pay for the costs of the affair?

Amazingly, the Christian Peacemakers admit that they had no contacts on the ground in Iraq through whom they could negotiate with the kidnappers.

That left the job of contacting and negotiating with the kidnappers to the very Governments - Canada in particular - which repeatedly warned them against travel to Iraq for anything other than officially sanctioned purposes.

It was Canada that led the negotiations, expending much diplomatic time and effort to secure the release of the hostages. It was Canada, Britain and other security partners (there were rumours of New Zealand involvement) which eventually developed the intelligence leads that located the site where they were being held. The steps taken to secure their release cost money as well as effort and time.

In this case we have four individuals - one now dead - aided and abetted by a non-governmental agency, who deliberately and consciously ignored official warnings from their Governments not to enter a war zone.

They were captured, suffered the indignity of captivity, and were rescued or released through the concerted efforts of those same Governments.

In many countries, including New Zealand, individuals who ignore official and expert advice and engage in risky ventures that require their being saved are required to pay the costs of the rescue operation.

Perhaps it is time to do the same with Sooden and his colleagues.

* Paul G. Buchanan is the director of the working group on alternative security perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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