The rash of ships hijacked in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden has focused the international community’s efforts to put an end to the scourge of piracy off the Somali coast. But eradicating piracy once and for all will require more than tough talk, sending in a few warships, and establishing shipping lanes that commercial ships must transit through if they want protection.
The international community has decided, in typical fashion, that treating the symptom, piracy, is easier than treating the disease: a weak, failing state in the Horn of Africa that makes possible the existence of a vast ungovernable waterspace and pirate sanctuary off the Somali coast.
Rooting out piracy off the Somali coast will require an approach that couples the kinetic/military arm of national and international power with the non-kinetic—common sense diplomacy—not just maritime shock and awe that some nations will undoubtedly soon advocate.
The Failed State
For decades Somalia has suffered from a host of internal and external problems and over the last two decades there have been no less than a dozen governments. During the early 1990s, the U.S. intervened to provide humanitarian assistance only to abandon this effort after a few short years in the wake of the shoot down of an Army Blackhawk helicopter and subsequent horrific pictures and video of U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu—confirming western fears that Somalia was a failed state spiraling towards an unsalvageable end.
But there are two very distinct parts of Somalia: northern Somalia, Somaliland, and Somalia proper.
Somaliland, although not recognized by the international community, has been relatively stable since its declaration as an independent state in 1991. In early 2008, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador J. Frazer, visited Somaliland and subsequently acknowledged the “democratic progress” it has made, though failing to proffer or advocate official recognition. (Dr. Peter Pham, an Atlantic Council New Atlanticist Contributor has written an insightful article on the whole of East Africa). Indeed, until the October 2008 terrorist attacks in Somaliland and Puntland, the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory for southern Somalia differed from that of northern Somalia—northern Somalia being seen as a somewhat safer place for U.S. citizens to travel.
The Current Fight
To date, efforts to combat piracy have been largely, if not singularly, focused on ways to prevent the at-sea part of piracy—small boats launched from “motherships” that attack off the coast. This approach, although necessary, is far from sufficient if piracy is to be dealt with in an effective, enduring fashion. Piracy is not a maritime only problem. Rather, it is a product of a failed state. As such, any maritime-only solution will be costly to for those nations that agree to offer resources (ships, planes and treasure) and will eventually be out-lasted by the criminal enterprises ashore that provide the sanctuary and resources pirates need. Pirates and their financiers need only “wait out” the nations who will eventually grow tired of their publics’ inquiries about the efficacy of deploying ships and planes to protect global commercial shipping, the exorbitant cost and the return on their investment.
In fact, as pirates refine their at-sea tactics, improve their ability to locate vulnerable shipping and rapidly board ships with greater freeboard, the window of opportunity to thwart pirates at sea shrinks. And, with shipping companies showing a willingness to pay ever-increasing ransoms now reportedly as much as $25M USD, pirates can now re-invest in infrastructure ashore, hire more labor and purchase more sophisticated weaponry thereby increasing the likelihood of more frequent and successful attacks. Indeed, some experts suggest that pirates can mount a successful boarding of an unsuspecting merchant ship in as little as 15 minutes—hardly enough time for a naval warship to respond. After the pirates are on board the ship, few, if any, owners are willing to take the risk of losing the ship or having its crew injured or killed.
Common Sense Diplomacy Coupled with Economic/Financial Planning
The international community has to support what works. Somaliland, given its relative success in a region rife with corruption, lawlessness and increasingly void of stable governance, deserves increased diplomatic support from the international community and serious consideration of recognition. Indeed, the entire Horn of Africa must be made a diplomatic priority for the international community and accorded the same level of diplomatic attention that the Middle East enjoys. Put simply, the Horn of Africa, if not stabilized, may soon provide an impenetrable land sanctuary for increasingly sophisticated forms of illicit activity. Every state in the Horn from Sudan in the north to Tanzania in the south can benefit from an intense, continual, high-level diplomatic effort aimed at supporting those states and/or state-like entities tending towards stability and good governance.
But diplomacy is not enough.
In a region where literacy rates and life expectancy are low, and per capita income remains under $1000 USD, much can be done to improve the lives of the general population thereby decreasing the region’s appeal as a sanctuary for illicit activity. It will take an international, coordinated state/NGO effort to make significant progress in East Africa.
A year ago, citizens on both sides of Atlantic probably thought piracy was an insignificant regional problem that had little, if any, impact on their daily lives. Today, however, given the recent spike, most probably think otherwise.
Regrettably, when most people think of pirates and piracy, they envision small ships and boats at sea with men carrying weapons. This image needs to be replaced with a picture of a vast ungoverned land mass in the Horn of Africa that provides sanctuary for any and all forms of illicit activity. Fixing piracy off the Somali coast is about eliminating the sanctuary afforded to criminals by a failed state. This can only be accomplish through a comprehensive approach that includes providing the poor and destitute population with good governance and the basic services most populations in western democracies take for granted.
James Easaw is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency.