Navy Can't Do It Alone

April 17, 2009|By Virginia Lunsford

The Somali pirates have come roaring back into the media spotlight. Indeed, after a lull in early 2009, they have returned with a vengeance, capturing at least six ships in less than a week. The Maersk Alabam a incident has shocked many and prompted insistent demands to the Navy to solve this crisis, and solve it quickly. But the problem is not that simple.

Naval operations, no matter how adroitly performed, cannot eradicate Somali piracy. Why? Historical case studies reveal that resilient piracy is a complex activity that relies on five essential factors beyond the realm of naval capability. These factors are a pool of recruits (usually economically deprived); at least one (and typically more) base of operation; a sophisticated internal organization; outside support; and cultural solidarity among the participants. Actions that seriously interfere with any of these factors impair the piracy's sustainability. However, these actions are not something that navies typically can effect.

Somalia is a failed state. While a moderate Islamist government has recently been established in Mogadishu, it maintains limited control and faces a potent insurgency mounted by a hard-line Islamist group connected to al-Qaida. Meanwhile, for Somalia's beleaguered citizenry, economic options are practically nonexistent.

This very troubled environment enables Somali piracy to thrive. Organized along clan lines into two to three networks located primarily in the semi-autonomous province of Puntland, it is free of the endemic infighting that has permeated Somali society generally. Moreover, it is supported by powerful warlords and capitalists within Somalia, as well as well-connected ?migr?s abroad. Not surprisingly, it enjoys a ready population of recruits, and the settlements linked to its coastal bases reap substantial economic benefits. Somali piracy, then, possesses the five factors that have characterized other resilient pirate communities, and all five of these factors appear to be intensifying.

So far, the U.S. has emphasized naval policy to deal with the piracy scourge. In December 2008, the National Security Council released a detailed plan urging measures to reduce commercial shipping's vulnerability and ensure the pirates' prosecution. It also calls on the Navy to perform counter-piracy operations, including heightened patrols. This January saw the creation of Combined Task Force 151, a multinational naval force with deep American involvement whose sole purpose is to combat Somali piracy.

It is important to keep a strong naval presence in the region. Suppressing Somali pirates at sea, however, will only go so far to eliminate the piracy itself. The region that CTF-151 must patrol is simply too large - some 1 million square miles. Furthermore, some traditional counter-piracy tactics - namely, blockading and convoying - are simply too expensive, impractical or unenforceable in this case.

History teaches us that the key to eradicating piracy lies in interrupting the system that enables it, and that system is ashore. The U.S. and other nations must tangibly help the nascent Mogadishu government achieve order, especially in Puntland, and supply aid that responds to immediate needs as well as enables long-term economic development in communities that have been corrupted and enriched by piracy.

We also should establish direct relationships with local clan leaders and Puntland governing authorities, and make them partners in the effort to rid piracy from their region. Moreover, the global community must go after pirate bosses and other higher-ups who serve as sources of goods (such as weapons), intelligence and access to the financial world. At the same time, amnesty could be offered to select pirates who show the potential for rehabilitation, in exchange for cooperation and a cessation of raiding. The pirates' base camps could be targeted, too (although carefully, for this risks harming civilians as well as antagonizing the insurgents and local citizenry). Dismantling pirate bases is endorsed by both the NSC plan and by U.S. Security Council resolutions. By targeting the five factors identified above, these actions would eliminate piracy and help prevent Somalia from becoming a Taliban-like refuge for terrorism. Ultimately, one truth must be understood: Despite the fact that piracy is a maritime crime, there is only so much that navies can do to stop it.

Virginia Lunsford is a history professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who specializes in the study of piracy. Her e-mail is lunsford@

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