You know the security situation of a given region has taken a turn for the worse when Blackwater Worldwide, the security services behemoth best known for its work in Iraq, sees the downturn as a business opportunity. Recent reports indicate the North Carolina-based firm is building a small but potent flotilla to deliver maritime protection against the increased threat of international piracy.
Pirates were on the wane and marginalized to a select few global waterways only a few years ago, but their attacks have skyrocketed off Somalia's coast, the longest in Africa and located along one of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes in the world. Controlling Somali piracy will take a potentially lengthy military and diplomatic campaign to reinstate the rule of law. The election of a moderate Islamic cleric as president over the weekend may be a step toward stability, but Somalia still faces daunting challenges.
The statistics are staggering: 111 pirate attacks off Somalia's coast in 2008, with more than 60 successful hijackings, representing almost 40 percent of worldwide attacks. The Chinese foreign ministry estimates that about 20 percent of its vessels have come under attack while passing near Somalia. Nearly 400 crew members along with their ships are currently being held for ransom.
As a result, the international shipping industry is taking quite a hit. Insurance premiums are rising, and many shippers are seriously considering rerouting their cargo around Africa's southern tip. Higher premiums and longer voyages raise the cost of goods worldwide just as much of the world is in the midst of a recession.
The international community is responding. The U.S., India, Russia, Denmark and now China and Japan have sent naval vessels to escort ships and respond to distress calls. The U.N. Security Council recently unanimously adopted a resolution allowing coalition forces to chase pirates onto Somali territory. It also established a piracy intelligence-sharing "contact" group.
While Washington, the European Union and others should be commended for their efforts, the situation is likely to worsen. Piracy is big business in Somalia, a country that hasn't had a functioning government for close to two decades. Ransoms have swelled into the millions of dollars, and attacks have become bolder.
Like many international security concerns, Somali piracy cannot be fully combated by force alone. The problem is merely a symptom of a country on the brink of humanitarian disaster.
Solving the Somali piracy crisis will thus take a combination of a robust international naval presence, a mechanism to prosecute captured pirates, a political settlement between warring Somali factions and solid intelligence work. Without meaningful consequences, Somali pirates have little incentive to change their behavior.
More nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia should offer naval and intelligence assistance to the coalition already in place. Coordination by the U.N. contact group is essential to effectively prevent and respond to pirate attacks. Recently, Washington and Britain reached agreements with Kenya to transfer pirate suspects for trial in Nairobi. This positive step should be duplicated by other nations whose navies are involved in anti-piracy operations near Somalia.
The political aspect of ending Somali piracy is unfortunately more difficult - and more important. The United Nations must make tough decisions about what it is prepared to do. The most obvious answer is to bolster the existing African Union mission in the lawless nation. Beyond boosting training and logistical support as well as adding reinforcements to the mission, Washington and its allies must at a minimum ensure that relief supplies can safely reach Somalia's ports.
An international coalition patrolling the Horn of Africa's waterways is not a long-term solution to Somali piracy. However, it may prevent the problem from reaching epidemic proportions and buy time for Washington and other concerned nations to finally broker and implement a deal to bring peace and stability to Somalis, who increasingly barely remember it.
Aaron Resnick is a policy analyst at the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute. The views expressed here are his own. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.