Now that the piracy crisis centered off the Somali Coast/Gulf of Aden, the Horn of Africa and, to a lesser degree, the West African Coast in the Gulf of Guinea has become big news, the international community, most recently the United Nations, has sprung into action.  The end of piracy draws nigh.  In fact, those Somali pirates are reportedly shaking in their Sperry Topsiders while bending over and kissing their booties goodbye.  OK, perhaps not.

  But, this better-coordinated, more comprehensive effort that couples common sense, practical diplomacy with maritime shock and awe may prove to be successful—but only if the nations providing the forces can outlast the pirates or some international organization that has standing, readily deployable and experienced naval forces takes the lead—some organization like NATO.

The recent flurry of international maritime security activity over the past few months includes a NATO and European Union maritime force, a new, Combined Task Force dedicated to eradicating piracy (CTF-151) established earlier this month and CTF 150, established in the early days of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM that operates in the Gulfs of Aden and Oman, the Arabian and Red Seas and the Indian Ocean.  These forces are some, but not all, of the ongoing efforts aimed at ending the scourge of piracy off the Somali Coast.  Regrettably, these efforts to combat piracy remain primarily maritime focused.  That is, they aim to solve the problem at sea where it is often too little and too late.   A comprehensive approach that marries the ongoing maritime efforts with shore-based kinetic and non-kinetic actions such as a viable coastal maritime defense/law-enforcement and anti-money laundering regime that gets to the financiers of the smalltime pirates is critical.  Until recently, there has been little international community appetite for such an approach.

Now, however, these forces have the opportunity to be coupled with the efforts of the United Nations’ Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somali (CGPCS).

The CGPCS, established on January 14, 2009, will “facilitate discussion and coordination of actions among states and organizations to suppress piracy off the coast of Somalia.”  Indeed, the CGPCS applauded “the efforts countries, industry, and regional and international organizations have taken to address the piracy problem pursuant to Security Council resolutions” noting, in particular “the counter-piracy operations that individual nations, Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), NATO and the EU have undertaken during the last six months.”

However, it remains to be seen if individual nations who have signed up to be part of the CMF will be willing to stay the course.  For now, it is somewhat “sexy” to be a member of the maritime coalition of the willing helping to prevent lawlessness on the high seas while protecting the free of flow commerce. But, will it be as sexy six months from now? A year from now when the price of diesel fuel marine, the fuel ships run on, doubles?  Triples? Quadruples?  As of December 2008, the official composite fuel price for the U.S. Department of Defense was hovering around the $105/bbl, significantly lower than the July 2008 price when a barrel of oil reached $147/bbl.  Will being a part of the international coalition combating piracy be as sexy when the price of fuel returns to the July 2008 levels?  How long will it take for domestic constituencies to simply say “don’t we have better things to do with our warships and aircraft”—warships that, by the way, cost hundreds of millions and, in some cases, billions of dollars? Hence, it may be prudent for the international community, NATO in particular, to devise a more permanent maritime solution to act in concert with the UN effort.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, NATO began its Operation ACTIVE ENDEAVOUR (OAE), part of its “multi-faceted response to the terrorist threat.”  Since then, OAE has operated continuously in the Mediterranean and approaches to the Strait of Gibraltar (SOG), has a bona fide concept of operations and has operated with non-NATO forces.  As of December 2008, it had boarded nearly 150 merchant ships, escorted nearly 500 through the SOG through May 2004 when escorts stopped because of a decrease threat level.  OAE has reportedly deterred a host of illicit maritime activity including drug and human trafficking, and illicit arms.  In short, it is a credible, proven operation well-suited to arrest the illicit activity in the vast ungovernable waterspaces off the Somali coast.

Make no mistake, the number of attacks off the Somali coast may decrease in the near term while nations are willing and able to contribute forces.  But, unless a permanent maritime force coupled with the efforts that solve the root problem is put into place, the end of piracy is not in sight.  The barriers to entry remain low. The return on investment remains high and the superabundance of cheap labor is not likely to go away.  This is a successful business model that will endure far longer than patience of the ad hoc maritime forces.

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.