Friday, December 12, 2008
Getting to the Root of Somali Piracy
While many may make jokes about piracy or even celebrate International Talk like a Pirate Day, piracy in the Horn of Africa is no laughing matter. This Fall has seen a tremendous spike in pirate attacks in and around the Horn of Africa. In addition, pirates have become much more daring in their targets, seizing a Ukrainian ship laden with Russian-made T-72 tanks as well as a Saudi oil tanker, the Sirius Star with its 2 million barrels of oil, nearly a fourth of Saudia Arabia's daily output. The attack on the Saudi oil tanker was particularly brazen, as the attacks occured some 450 miles off the coast, far out of the range of more "traditional" pirates. As a result, these waters have been buffered with a much stronger international naval presence. This November the Indian Navy announced that it had sunk a pirate "mother ship", a larger ship that helps extend the range of pirates by towing fast, maneuverable speed boats far out to sea. An increased naval presence will certainly test the resolve of pirates and pose a threat to their livelihood, but occasional sinkings of pirate ships will not be enough to discourage the Somali pirates. To combat piracy off the coast of Somalia, the international community will first have to deal with the root cause: the failed state of Somalia.
Since 1991, Somalia has possessed at most times a government that could be called nominal at best and non-existent at worst. Since the collapse of Siad Barre's dictatorship, Somalia has suffered through a nearly endless amount of civil war and factionalism. In the early 1990s, the United Nations attempted a peacekeeping mission to bring order to war-torn Somalia. A spike of violence in October 2003, popularized by the movie Black Hawk Down, brought the deaths of 18 Americans and nearly 1000 Somalis, and essentially killed international support for intervention in Somalia. Despite this earlier failure, a military intervention today must not be made a self-fulfilling prophesy doomed to a similar fate. Obviously a military intervention in Somalia would be highly unpopular and the United States is over-streteched and ill-poised to meet the troop demand for such an operation. Nevertheless, the West will have to act, or it will continue to see Somali piracy hurt commerce in the geopolitically important Horn of Africa. These pirates are simply hungry, desperate Somalis trying to make a living through very unsavory means. By no means am I condoning piracy, but killing and/or prosecuting pirates will do nothing to protect them until the greater attention is paid to the failed state that harbors them and allows them to thrive.