“Robust” is the word now being used to describe the EU’s mandate for its new anti-piracy mission, Operation Atalanta, in Somalia’s treacherous waters.  With NATO’s Operation Allied Provider officially ending last Friday, news is beginning to leak about Atalanta’s rules of engagement. 


[A]ccording to information obtained by Spiegel, EU ships operating off the coast of Somalia have not only been given the green light to ward off or capture pirates – they can also sink their ships.  The mission, involving half a dozen ships, up to three reconnaissance aircraft, as well as unmanned drones, began a week ago and has not yet reached full strength.  The German government has already agreed to contribute a frigate and 1,400 troops.


In addition to the EU ships now operating in the region, there are a number of other warships from the United States, Germany, and Denmark conducting anti-terrorism missions there.  Other countries also have warships in the region.  The EU mission is scheduled to run until the end of 2009.

With more comprehensive combat rules than earlier expected, the EU mission now seems to be shaping up into a promising force.  Atalanta, under UK leadership, already exceeds Allied Provider’s four warships and will hopefully take the aggressive approach its recently leaked rules allow it to.

Yet, as more resources are poured into protecting trade routes in the Gulf of Aden, hijacking incidents continue to rise.  The NYT reports that there are now more than 12 warships from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain, Malaysia, and the United States to counter the threat of pirates:

[I]n the past two months alone, the pirates have attacked more than 30 vessels, eluding the naval patrols, going farther out to sea, and seeking bigger, more lucrative game, including an American cruise ship and a 1,000-foot Saudi oil tanker.

The pirates are recalibrating their tactics, attacking ships in beelike swarms of 20 to 30 skiffs, and threatening to choke off one of the busiest shipping arteries in the world, at the mouth of the Red Sea.

United Nations officials recently estimated that Somali pirates had netted as much as $120 million this year in ransom payments – an astronomical sum for a country whose economy has been gutted by 17 years of chaos and war.  Some shipping companies are now rerouting their vessels to avoid Somalia’s waters, detouring thousands of miles around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa.

Still, many analysts doubt that strictly maritime measures will be sufficient to stop the problem of Somali piracy.  Although the U.S. recently proposed conducting anti-piracy missions on Somali land at the UN Security Council, Defense Secretary Gates stated that the intelligence needed to conduct these operations was not reliable.  Russia has similarly suggested using ground forces to combat piracy.  Moreover, calls for a NATO blockade of Somali waters have also been rejected by the alliance.

There is a broad consensus that the root cause of Somalia’s piracy is its collapsed statehood.  However, the solution to this governmental problem is years if not decades away, so it is less than clear that Atalanta, even with its forceful rules of engagement, will deliver long-term stability to shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden – but the mission is a step in the right direction.  A regional approach to the situation, where the U.S. and the EU provide training and technological assistance to concerned neighbors of Somalia, would likewise be beneficial.

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Peter Cassata is an assistant editor at the Atlantic Council.