TCS Daily

Bountiful Incentives

By Randall Lutter - March 20, 2002 12:00 AM

Senior officials at the Pentagon are acting as if they have flunked econ 101 if they took it at all. Frustrated that dirt-poor Afghans have not responded to multi-million dollar rewards by supplying true tips about the whereabouts of top terrorist Osama bin Laden, the Pentagon decided last week to offer smaller rewards, according to a report in the Washington Times. Explaining their decision, officials said that the big rewards were "beyond the comprehension of the Afghan people." Unfortunately, the new reward policy is probably prolonging the war on al Qaeda.

The Pentagon's decision to offer smaller rewards reflects a misunderstanding about money: It is a unit of exchange as much as a measure of value. If Afghans cannot comprehend $25,000,000, surely they can comprehend what that money could buy. The Pentagon needs simply to translate the allegedly incomprehensible $25 million into a good known throughout Afghanistan.

For example, the $25 million figure could buy 500 sport utility vehicles, fully loaded, equipped with lifetime service contracts, with all taxes and duties taken care of. Comprehending $25 million merely means imagining that a large flock of sheep becomes a fleet of shiny Land Cruisers. For innumerate shepherds unable to count to 500, the Pentagon could translate $25 million as 2 new apartment buildings in Kabul. Even better, it could distribute a picture of a scale with a pile of gold jewelry balancing the weight of a new Toyota Corolla. And if these items are unavailable at village markets in Afghanistan, the Pentagon ought to offer to airdrop free of charge anything that informants select from the latest L.L. Bean catalog. But do not doubt that Afghans, like Americans, understand value when it is presented in terms they know and that they respond to greater incentives with greater efforts.

More broadly though, the decision to modify the rewards for information reveals a fundamental failing of the U.S. war in Afghanistan: Osama bin Laden is still roaming those hills. Since the U.S. efforts are directed at individuals rather than governments or even organizations, the lack of information about Osama bin Laden and his henchman is the single biggest obstacle to decapitating al Qaeda. Better policies to acquire and use information about their whereabouts are critical for the success of U.S. efforts.

Instead of reducing rewards for information, the U.S. ought to revise its reward policy to pay for action and not only for information. Bounties, after all, were very effective in getting gunmen to stop the careers of Billy the Kid, Jesse James, the Dalton Brothers and other infamous criminals who terrorized settlers on the U.S. frontier during the 19th century.

Bounties for action as opposed to just information would help potential U.S. supporters control the fear that now prevents more Afghan residents from helping the U.S. Currently, informants rely on competent and timely U.S. action for their safety. After all, anyone wishing to report the whereabouts of al Qaeda leaders runs the risk of being killed by al Qaeda until the U.S. acts on the information and protects the person who supplied the information. Yet such information is intrinsically hard to verify. Therefore it is uncertain whether U.S. action would be sufficiently quick and effective to offer the protection necessary to entice people with the information to share it. Paying bounties for verifiably successful actions against al Qaeda, however, would allow dissident al Qaeda members to ensure their own protection by first destroying threatening al Qaeda loyalists.

Bounties for action may tempt disgruntled al Qaeda members - and surely there must be some if the reports of that organization's bureaucratic problems are even partly true - to conspire among themselves to stage mini-rebellions against their leadership. In two different incidents, buddies of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, two notorious outlaws of the Old West, shot them to win cash bounties promised by state legislatures. Even unsuccessful mini-rebellions against the al Qaeda leadership would improve U.S. security by distracting the al Qaeda leaders from their stated aims - killing Americans.

Any bounty, whether for information or action, needs to be accompanied with an appropriate security guarantee - something that the U.S. has yet to offer. The U.S. should commit to guarantee the safety of any informant - as well as his immediate family - who gives information leading to the apprehension or death of top al Qaeda officials.

A bounty for action, unlike the existing rewards for information, would also increase the likelihood of timely and effective action against al Qaeda. It could lead to independent opportunistic attacks on al Qaeda by anyone with information about the whereabouts of bin Laden or his close associates, thereby avoiding the centralized decision-making process now in place. The Pentagon's desire to monopolize the use of force made sense in battles against enemies that identified themselves, but is limited against a terror network that hides in crevices.

To make bounties for action credible, the Bush administration should seek Congressional approval. It ought to ask Congress to authorize a set of payments for any parties who apprehend or destroy al Qaeda leaders, provided that third parties are not harmed.

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