Who Has the Will to Fight Piracy?


Apr 21, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on GlobalSecurity.org on April 21, 2009.

The recent French and American rescues of hostages held by pirates off the coast of Somalia were necessary and proper. No one believes these actions will end piracy. But unless we impose risks on the pirates—which means taking some risks ourselves—piracy will certainly flourish.

What more can be done? First, it is important to correctly appreciate the situation. Pirates pose no threat to the national security of the United States or that of any other nation. We should avoid conflating piracy with terrorism. Critics of intervention question why U.S. and other warships should be called upon to protect ships that fly foreign flags simply to cut their costs and pay crews less. Moreover, these critics point out, the pirates' accumulation of hijacked ships and hostage crews represents only a tiny fraction of the traffic that moves through the area - something akin to saying that airline hijackings are no more than a nuisance, because they represent only a minuscule fraction of the flights undertaken. But, as we have seen, pirates can create mini-crises that demand action. The seizure of an American vessel obliged President Obama to order military action.

The most effective way to end piracy off the Horn of Africa would be to restore effective government to Somalia.

The pirates, like their bandit counterparts on land, thrive as a result of the political chaos in the country. The so-called Islamic Courts, which briefly ruled much of Somalia before being driven out by U.S.-backed Ethiopian invaders, temporarily alleviated the problem. The current internationally recognized government of Somalia is ineffectual. But no country or international coalition seems willing to incur the likely cost in blood, treasure, and time that a major nation-building effort would require. It is far cheaper to try to protect ships at sea.

Some of the pirates are former fishermen, put out of work by overfishing, illegal toxic dumping in Somali waters, and the virtual collapse of commerce in the country. It would be nice to help them find other less risky work. Perhaps some could be enlisted in a proper Somali Coast Guard. If nation-building is too ambitious, is building one national institution feasible?

Direct military attacks on the pirates' bases in Somalia would disrupt their operations but would risk reprisals against the hundreds of hostages now held by the pirates and would provoke howls of international protest. Anxious to protect their own nationals, some governments would dissociate themselves from any continuing international effort.

The pirates' "mother ships" are another story. Without them, the pirates in their tiny boats cannot operate hundreds of miles out at sea. The International Maritime Bureau has urged more vigorous action against them, which the United Nations has authorized. There are not many of these vessels. They have been identified. And they are no match for warships. Suspicious vessels loitering near shipping lanes can be challenged and boarded by any naval vessel. If they offer armed resistance, they can be fired upon. Or if permission is denied, they can at least be shadowed, which would prevent them from launching the hunter boats.

This, however, also seems to be beyond the political will of most of the countries participating in the anti-piracy flotilla. Their rules of engagement reflect extraordinary timidity. They say they are there to deter piracy, not chase pirates. They can come to the assistance only of vessels under attack. Some can protect only their own ships and crews.

And what would they do with any pirates they happened to capture? In the 18th century, the pirates would have been brought home to stand trial. But today few countries are willing to do that. And European governments forbid turning captured pirates over to countries that impose the death penalty or whose treatment of prisoners may not be consistent with the EU's Convention on Human Rights.

On-board defense--arming the crews or placing armed guards on cargo vessels--generally has been rejected. Arming a crew changes the status of the vessel and complicates shipping. And as a practical matter, today's small crews, even armed, are not likely to match the automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, experience and ferocity of the pirates. Instead, crews keep watch and fend off pirates with speed, maneuver, and non-lethal defenses like fire hoses, directional sound generators that aim ear-piercing but non-lethal sound waves at approaching pirates. Electrified fences and railings are recommended to prevent boarding, but few vessels have the technology.

That leaves us with armed response and, when possible, armed rescue, as exemplified by the recent release of a hijacked French yacht by French commandos, and the use of force against pirates holding the captain of an American ship hostage. This too has provoked some participants in the anti-piracy effort to complain that such action might anger the pirates.

Vessels approaching dangerous waters are urged to stay hundreds of miles off shore and sail within established corridors where they can be better protected by the small international flotilla of naval vessels stationed in the area.

Civilian ships are shepherded by the anti-piracy patrol so that they will be clustered--a tighter herd--when sailing in the most dangerous areas and at the most dangerous times. This has somewhat reduced piracy north of the Horn, but as the recent surge in attacks demonstrates, the pirates can avoid these security measures and carry out attacks in new areas.

The shift in attacks from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea creates a greater challenge. This is a much larger expanse of ocean, with vessels routing through it in different directions. Clustering and convoying are difficult. There are too few naval vessels to effectively cover the entire area in which pirates can operate. Simply reacting to attacks may no longer be a viable option. That means adopting a more proactive approach.

Some American Navy officers and defense analysts complain that anti-piracy patrols distract naval assets from more important missions. And indeed, dealing with pirates may not merit U.S. warships.

Despite the predictable podium pounding prompted by the first pirate seizure of an American ship since the early 19th century, this is not a war. It is a law enforcement problem. And the vessels and crews needed to address the problem are not navy ships, but smaller craft that can monitor suspect ships as they head out from known Somali pirate harbors.

U.S. Coast Guard craft with crews trained for law enforcement are more efficient than gray ships with big guns. Coast Guard crews already work with their Navy counterparts in boarding operations, but the United States does not have a large enough Coast Guard to patrol both its own shores and those of Somalia. Nor should we bear the burden of such a task on our own.

A less expensive and politically more acceptable solution might be to move beyond the current multinational anti-piracy force to a dedicated, specially equipped and trained, internationally financed anti-piracy force of smaller, more suitable vessels operating under a United Nations flag--a small permanent anti-piracy navy. Its commanders, one hopes, could operate with fewer constraints than many national governments now impose on their contingents.

The notion of such a multinational force may be a captain's bridge too far, but having ruled out the other options, it may also be our best solution. An earlier outbreak of piracy in the Straits of Malacca was reduced by effective international cooperation and by the negotiated settlement of a separatist insurgency in Northern Indonesia. With a more coordinated, more creative—and more courageous—international response, the danger of piracy around the Horn of Africa also can be contained. We have the means. And it can be done without major armed expeditions. What it will require is collective political will.

Brian Michael Jenkins is senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation and serves on the Advisory Board of the International Chamber of Commerce-Commercial Crime Services, of which the International Maritime Bureau is a specialized division.

This op-ed originally apeared on www.globalsecurity.org.

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