November 20, 2008

The latest seizure of a Saudi oil tanker by Somali pirates presents an opportunity to improve relations between Russia and NATO. Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has called for an international ground military operation to better combat rampant piracy in the region. "It's up to the European Union, NATO and others to launch a coastal land operation to eliminate the pirates…naval action alone will not be enough to liquidate the threat of piracy."  Rogozin is right: there are limits to providing armed escorts or security teams for merchant ships. 

 

Blackhawk Down syndrome is too fresh for a major intervention to be taken seriously. Yet, Rogozin just answered the senior US naval officer in the region for international action. Vice Admiral Bill Gortney says, “Coalition maritime efforts will give the IMO time to work international efforts that will ultimately lead to a long-term solution. This is a problem that starts ashore and requires an international solution. We made this clear at the outset – our efforts cannot guarantee safety in the region. Our part in preventing some of these destabilizing activities is only one part of the solution to preventing further attacks.”

While Rogozin and Gortney are right that piracy begins ashore, conducting military operations in Somalia could just be one part of a broader effort to improve maritime security in the Gulf of Aden, which is an international waterway that provides a key link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Historically important, this area remains an essential transportation route used to ship 3 million barrels of oil per day.   If a tanker were attacked or sunk in a key location, the economic implications would be staggering. In addition to the environmental catastrophe, ships would have to be re-routed around South Africa greatly increasing the expense of delivering oil to Europe. Egypt is already bracing for reduced shipping traffic in the Suez Canal.

It is probably good that many leading governments are deploying warships to the Gulf of Aden but it’s important to understand that piracy begins ashore.

When the Indian frigate INS Tabar sank a pirate mothership on Tuesday, there was a collective sigh that something can be done against piracy. But there is the potential to draw the wrong lessons. And, what happens if Somali pirates strike back and attack a ship à la the USS Cole attack in 2000?

This is not the eighteenth century; there are different reasons for piracy today and international mechanisms to confront it.  Any solution must address short-term needs of providing safe maritime lanes, destroying pirate boats at sea, supporting security teams aboard vessels, and dismantling pirate networks ashore. At the same time, the European Union needs to carefully examine the role fishing fleets have played in undermining regional stability through illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.

As Peter Lehr has argued, “a western armada is not the way to sink Somalia’s pirates.” While the pirates have earned about $30 million this year from ransoms, this is just a fraction of the estimated $300m of fish poached in Somali waters. “Seen from this perspective, it is hardly surprising that some pirate groups see themselves as defenders of Somali fishermen, giving their groups names such as National Volunteer Coast Guard of Somalia, or Somali Marines.”

Consequently, a long-term solution to this problem includes promoting the maritime forces of Yemen, Kenya, Djibouti, and southwest Indian Ocean countries of Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, and Seychelles to protect their waters from illegal fishing. A very long-term solution is focused on bringing stability to Somalia and co-opting these pirate groups to be Somalia’s coast guard protecting its waters.

When it comes to military actions in Somalia, it’s highly unlikely that a lame duck President Bush will repeat the actions of the other lame duck President Bush. This is not 1992 and the lessons of Blackhawk Down are well understood today. But Rogozin’s offer for joint NATO and Russian operations in the Gulf of Aden should not be overlooked. Somalia presents an opportunity far from European borders to start repairing relations, reducing suspicions, and doing good for a very poor region of the world.

Derek S. Reveron is a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College. These views are his own .

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