Friday, May 8, 2009

Real solutions to the pirate problem in Somalia

Every day ink, kilobytes, brain power, and resources are wasted on dealing with pirates is time that should be spent figuring out the really big problems we have today – namely, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran.

The real solution is to create a stable environment under the rule of law within Somalia’s fractious borders, but since that isn’t going to happen any time soon we need to look at more realistic options.

So, in the name of finding a way that allows us to move beyond our semi-fetishistic infatuation with piracy, here are a few solutions that ideally should work in concert but even individually implemented can point towards progress:

Engagement – co-opt the pirates

We can’t look for parallels in past wars and pirate stories, as entertaining and inspiring as the story of the Barbary Wars are. President Jefferson’s attacks on pirate states were successful because he could attack a functioning state and defeat it.

That’s not going to happen here in Somalia. The parallels we need to pay attention to are those involving counterinsurgency efforts like we’ve seen in Iraq. That variation of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" has worked pretty well, and it's a good model to study here. These pirates are essentially businessmen (granted, they’re armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers rather than powerpoints and blackberries) who don’t have many options to make a decent living. But they are armed, trained, and upset with the current state of affairs – ie. a nascent force for order if we’d engage them and turn them into one.

Western nations have already agreed to pony up $200m to help Somalia. In the past 18 months, companies have paid about $100m to pirates so there's more money available to help than there is money that the pirates are raking in. Use some of that aid money to pay pirates, train them, and make them a coast guard. If this is done well, this new coast guard force could be a useful building block for Somalia’s basket case of a security department and a bulwark against Islamic extremists in the area.

Force – maintain a credible naval force in local waters

Old habits die hard so keep a credible military presence in the region. The key word is “credible” here. It’s too expensive and unrealistic to maintain a sizable force in the area in the long term. The naval force in the region is already hitting back at pirates, with arrests of pirates recently showing marked improvement. Nations can share duties, create convoys, escort ships through a “cordon sanitaire” where they can better protect boats.

Whatever we do, allied forces cannot put “boots on the ground” for anything more than a surgical strike.

Putting soldiers on the ground in Somalia will be:

  • Expensive – imagine all the logistics that would need to be in place
  • Hard to maintain – see above
  • Unlikely to succeed in the chaos that is that tortured region (All commanders in the area please read “Black Hawk Down”). Even if allied forces manage to squash the pirates, it will be temporary. Does anyone really believe that in a place as desperate as Somalia, other pirates won't take their place the moment they get the chance?
  • Likely turn everyone there against us – pirates will soon become freedom fighters and a cause to rally around for a country that doesn’t have much else going for it.

There’s a great anecdote I heard that may well be apocryphal but illustrates a point. Pirated copies of “Black Hawk Down” made the rounds of Mogadishu shortly after coming out (Somalis are proficient at all forms of pirating, it turns out). Viewers cheered wildly at all the moments in the movie when the Americans were beaten back, those moments that the producers had intended to cause heart-rending anguish to western viewers. As crazy as this country is, many of the people will understandably coalesce to defend their homes from foreign invaders.

Heart and minds – investigate and prosecute illegal fishing and dumping

The pirates have a lot of local backing because they are not only a source of income for communities but also they are defenders of local waters to many. Foreign trawlers, primarily from Arabia, Europe and Asia, have illegally fished in local waters and literally stealing away the livelihoods of local fishermen (prized yellow fin tuna used to be there in abundance). In 2005, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that an estimated 700 foreign-owned fishing vessels had illegally fished in Somali waters.

On top of that, the FAO also had strong suspicions that boats had dumped toxic waste in local waters. Somali rapper K’naan has claimed that 300 Somalis have died as a result.

You’ve got to take claims from a Somali rapper with a hefty grain of salt, but he represents something critical: a perception among Somalis of the complete disregard for their waters by foreign countries. It’s a surprise that there aren’t more Somali pirates rather than that there are any at all.

The solution: Show the Somalis the world is serious about protecting its livelihood. Investigate illegal fishing and toxic dumping in local waters. Presumably there isn’t much of that happening now given the oceans off east Africa are crawling with warships and pirates. But with so much circumstantial evidence, it shouldn’t be hard to arrest a few people and prosecute them.

In addition to that, send modern fishing boats, reintroduce fish into local waters, provide coast guard support to strictly enforce local fishing laws until Somalia can do that itself. Fishing isn’t as lucrative as piracy, but it’s not as dangerous either and since many of the pirates are former fishermen, there’s good reason to expect a lot of them return to their trade.

Deterrent - don't make piracy easy

Don’t make it so easy for pirates to attack. Although there are plenty of evasive maneuvers once ships come under attack, making a ship less “attackable” helps, things like barbed wire on the gunwales, installing alarms, having frequent patrols. A lot of pirate attacks happen in port so check the ship before sailing, and be vigilant in port. Helping ships follow these best practices makes attacking ships less profitable.

And don't arm ships' crews. It's just not a good idea.

Force isn’t the only deterrent. There’s also the law, and Roger Middleton from London’s Chatham House has argued for a legal framework to successfully crackdown on piracy. International law provides navies with sufficient rights and powers to combat piracy. But prosecuting people for piracy is trickier.


Denier said...

Just saw your comment on the NY Times story on Somalian pirates. I too have been fascinated by the way history has repeated itself.

Recently I reviewed 3 pirate histories I had just finished before the attack on the American cargo ship. Amazing how many parallels there are between broken lawless states like modern Somali and the ones in the West Indies and elsewhere 300 and 400 years ago.

Barr Seitz said...

I'm particularly interested in the Barbary pirates and the war the US fought against Tripoli during the Barbary Wars, 1801 - 1805 - Lots of differences from today, but just goes to show that we've been dealing with pirates for a long time (and probably will still be for a long time yet).

Denier said...

Lots of differences, but I found it fascinating that the name of the ship sent to rescue Capt. Phillips was named after William Bainbridge, who played such a major role in the Barbary Wars 200 years before. I'm sure the irony was lost on the pirate now in custody.

One thing's for sure: releasing pirates back into the wild once caught, as the Portuguese did last week, is hardly sufficient deterrent.

It's also too complicated a situation, given the state of the Somali state, for simplistic solutions along the lines of Hang 'Em High, Shoot First Ask Questions Later, Send in the Marines, or Sink every vessel leaving the Somali coastline. That's the approach recommended by more than a few commenters to the excellent NY Times article the other day.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comment on my post. I always check the commenters - I'm glad the trail leads to such a cogent and thoughtful post.

Barr Seitz said...

It's reassuring to hear that people generally don't trust in simplistic solutions. But people still tend to wash their hands of the situation by acknowledging that you really need stability in Somalia to end piracy, and that's near impossible. But there are measures that could work that take into account realities.