The battle against piracy off the coast of Somalia is not going well, with pirates continuing to attack and seize vessels and, in some cases, becoming more violent. The recent deaths of four American missionaries at the hands of pirates served to highlight the helplessness of the world navies gathered in the Gulf of Aden: Four American warships, including the USS Enterprise, monitored the situation, but none were able to prevent the tragedy. While the multinational naval flotilla -- primarily CTF-151, but including some other navies -- off Somalia has seen some notable successes, it has not defeated the pirates or changed the circumstances under which piracy has flourished. It is time for the world's maritime powers to rethink their approach to piracy.
That anti-piracy efforts have failed is now recognized at the highest levels of government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently reported to Congress that "the naval ships that have been involved from . . . more than 20 nations just have not been willing to really put themselves out. They're happy to patrol, and they're happy to . . . count themselves as part of the coalition. But when push comes to shove, they're not really producing." Sen. Mark Kirk, a former Naval reservist, proposed a set of tactical and legal reforms that would improve the flotilla's ability to make contact with pirates -- and to defeat them after contact is made.
But seeking to strengthen the flotilla's impact by loosening its rules of engagement on the high seas increases the chances that civilians will be killed and may pose a legal hazard. Also, pirates may respond to more aggressive ROEs by becoming more violent themselves. Finally, simply making adjustments to the way in which the flotilla operates might be missing the point: The flotilla just might not be able to solve the problem.
That didn't seem apparent two years ago, when Dr. Yoav Gortzak and I argued (.pdf) that increasing the density of naval forces off the Horn of Africa could have a major impact on Somali piracy. We assumed, apparently like many naval authorities, that a flotilla of sufficient size would allow navies to make contact with pirates in affected areas, and that this contact would quickly lead to the seizure or defeat of the pirates.
Both of these assumptions turned out to be overly optimistic. First, Somali pirates increased their geographic scope of operations beyond the area that could be covered by the flotilla through the use of "mother ships" that extended their range deep into the Indian Ocean. Second, the naval flotilla has not yet been able to overcome the political and legal problems associated with defeating pirates once contact has been made.
This latter problem has several facets. Like insurgents, pirates have in some cases been difficult to distinguish from civilians. Indeed, sometimes peaceful fishermen can become pirates very quickly if opportune targets pass nearby. Meanwhile, states have been reluctant to arrest pirates because of evidentiary concerns, and because they don't wish to clog their own legal systems with groups of captured pirates. Finally, navies have generally avoided taking hostile action against pirated vessels out of concern for the safety of hostages and of private property.
These factors have combined to reduce the impact that CTF-151 has had on Somali piracy. By contrast, some smaller-scale measures have been more successful. Ship owners have learned a series of procedures to minimize their risk to piracy, including the arming of crews, the avoidance of high-pirate areas, and maneuvers that make boarding and seizing their ships difficult.
The idea that a naval flotilla could defeat pirates was attractive: Pirates are largely unsympathetic characters, and the image of destroyers and frigates pursuing and destroying their craft had romantic allure. For naval advocates, in particular, the fight against piracy was a dream come true. The War on Terror did not lend itself to the use of naval assets, but defeating pirates has been a central mission of navies for nearly as long as navies have existed. Ships that otherwise would have had little to do could be put to good use off Somalia. From a U.S. point of view, counterpiracy appeared to be precisely the kind of mission envisioned by CS-21, the Cooperative Maritime Strategy that guides U.S. naval planning. Fighting piracy through patrol and prevention also avoided putting Somali civilians ashore at unnecessary risk, and made unpleasant comparisons to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unnecessary.
But despite the appeal of a naval flotilla patrolling the waters off Somalia, the key to piracy might lie ashore. If so, then defeating the pirates requires either a large investment in Somali proxy forces and economic development, or the direct use of multilateral land forces against pirate bases. The United States and others might also have to become comfortable cooperating with a distasteful regime in Somalia. The U.S.-supported invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian forces in December 2006 disrupted the control of Islamist militias. Unfortunately, the invasion also disrupted all other governance in Somalia, allowing piracy to flourish. Re-establishing order could require accepting as interlocutors some of the factions we previously shunned or targeted.
Either way, fighting piracy will require more treasure and greater exposure to risk. The United States, Europe and the emergent maritime powers will have to determine precisely what levels of expense and exposure they're willing to tolerate in order to eliminate Somali piracy. Against this backdrop, the major maritime powers may determine that piracy is easier to live with than are the potential solutions to the problem.
The biggest downside to a "live and let live" strategy is that it could allow piracy to expand elsewhere. Although Somalia is perhaps uniquely suited to serving as an incubator of piracy, other parts of the world share some key characteristics, including minimal governance, a seagoing populace and lucrative nearby trade routes. For example, piracy in Southeast Asia has been a persistent problem, although incidents have declined after peaking early last decade. Still, the chances of piracy emerging in other areas on the scale of the Horn of Africa shouldn't be overstated. Somali pirates have developed a robust infrastructure that supports recruitment and financial transactions, and few parts of the world are as ungoverned as Somalia.
The other potential risk remains the near-legendary "piracy-terrorism nexus" in which pirates and terrorists collaborate to launch major maritime attacks against littoral targets. To date, this threat has manifested itself only in the fears of Western counterterrorism experts. Terrorist groups have not been able to achieve a foothold in pirate communities, in large part because pirates have fundamentally different incentives. Under certain circumstances, however, cooperation remains imaginable, and the potential for such a threat emerging should not be entirely dismissed.
Although rethinking the multilateral flotilla's rules of engagement may help, I suspect that the most effective long-term solution to Somali piracy lies ashore. Only a central government with substantial control over coastal areas will be able to reduce the incidence of piracy. That means that the fight against piracy depends on a cost-benefit analysis on the part of the major maritime powers. Defeating pirates may simply not be worth the cost of intervening to establish and maintain a central government in Somalia. If this is the case, anti-piracy measures need to focus more on managing and mitigating the problem than on solving it.
Very good points for discussion. The ROE issue is hot but like you say the escalation will be inevitable and I wonder if it will be worth it. Just a thought, hitting them on their turf, at home cutting off their recruiting lines and interfering where it all starts. How does this sound?
On the other hand its always a matter of how much you are willing to invest, what your cost is at the moment and what you gain from any action. TruBlue I wish we could talk more on this issue, it seems you got a good understanding of the subject but I could never go on writing as much. Take care and stay safe.
I did not write it my friend, just cut and paste.
too much time on my hands at the minute, roll on sunday and back to the IO for a while.
I know what you mean. In the Moz Channel at the mo on a well cushy gig. A lot of time on my hands as well. Safe as houses, sunny as hell, on an excellent vessel (with gym!) & no watches. No, I aint lyin mate ! Cracked it
You have got it cushy mate, i am out that way next week heading north.