Thursday, April 16, 2009

Subject of My Latest Rant: Piracy

Anyone who has been breathing air for the past couple of weeks now knows that there is an epidemic of modern-day piracy off the coast of Somalia. Anyone who has been there knows that this is not new. Pirates have been operating with impunity in the lawless waters off the Horn of Africa for many years. It's only with the seizure of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama with its all-American crew that the problem has blipped onto our national radar scope. Cue the knee-jerk response, preferably one flavored with a gunslinger mentality more suited to the wild west. The sleeping giant of national righteous indignation has awakened and, boy, is he mad! He's slobbering, lashing out, ranting. I can't BELIEVE the most powerful Navy in the world can't stop a few third-rate thugs in dinghies with outboard motors. We've got Aegis missile destroyers on station, helicopters, large caliber guns, hundreds of sailors and special forces operators. They've got a couple of RPGs and machine guns in boats that are barely seaworthy, and we can't take 'em out? Jesus H. Christ. It makes me wish for George W. Bush. I may be putting a few words in his mouth.

Ironically, it was on Bush's watch that the problem grew to these proportions. That's not to say it's his fault. He certainly had more than enough on his plate to keep him busy. When the city is burning around them, most folks don't worry about what color to paint the living room. But now that we've had our attention grabbed: Piracy off the Horn of Africa is a multi-faceted problem that will require a multi-pronged approach to solve. I've talked with a lot of people recently who can't get their brains around why the U.S., in particular, can't do something about it. But here's the thing, Somalia's coast line is approximately the same length as the eastern seaboard of the United States. Unclassified source documentation has chronicled attacks over 300 nautical miles from the Somali coast. Do the multiplication, and you have several thousand square miles that would need to be patrolled consistently to even make a dent in the pirates' habits. Even if a merchant ship can get a call out to a patrolling warship on VHF radio, there are a couple of problems with that as well. 1) the warship would have to be within 20-30 miles to even hear the distress call and 2) they'd have to be considerably closer than that to do anything about it in a timely manner. Add all this to the chameleon acts of the pirates themselves (the same guys who were pirates on one outing may have been fishermen on the last one, and may well be fishermen again on the next one), and you have a real time-distance problem. Somalia is the end of the food chain logistically, so any military action is complicated by replenishment and basing issues. A couple of years ago, shipping authorities responded to the increased piracy threat by issuing warnings to stay at least 200 miles off the coast of Somalia. The pirates responded to this by working out a new tactic that enables them to reach ships further from the coast. Then there's the minor inconvenience that most of the ships that have been hijacked recently have been BOUND for Somalia, which also makes it difficult to stay well off the coast. All that to say this: If Iraq didn't teach us anything else, it should have taught us that military action is not the end all, be all. Without the creation of a strong central government, without proactive engagement on the land side, without an economic strategy that brings Somalis out of the abject poverty that makes piracy so attractive, nothing done on the sea will have much effect. It's a big problem that, so far, has not been deemed worth pursuing. A few million paid out by shipping companies to get their ships and crews back unharmed has been considered the price of sailing the seas off of Somalia. Now the ante has been upped. It will be interesting to see how, and indeed if, the new administration responds to the groggy giant of national consciousness.


Matthew K. said...

You always tell me you're not writing much. If posts like this ain't writing, I don't know what is.

It's gonna be interesting to see how this piracy thing plays out. Obama will be under pressure to respond militarily, but many in the Muslim world will see that as an over-reaction. Using the Navy to take em out seems like a simple fix, but it has so many ramifications. What to do? What to do?

Kristy said...

Thanks, Matt. Yeah, it's a many-headed problem. It's all well and fine to clamor for military action. But I'd sure hate to see what happens when the first American hostage is killed. These guys are desperate, but they've not, so far, proven to be totally ruthless. Posturing aside, I don't think we can stop the hijackings with military action. There's just too much ocean to cover. Increased presence will at least make it a little harder for them to operate with impunity. But where we'll really see some results is by pushing for a regime change. The only time we've seen a significant lull in piracy was when the radically oppressive Council of Islamic Clerics took over the country briefly a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, they came with their own baggage. Nothing about east Africa is easy.