the high somali seas
So there are pirates in Somalia.
Perhaps you heard about it.
It was a big weekend in piracy. Or, to be more specific, in fighting piracy. As usual with all things African, the U.S. didn't do much about the situation until American interests (and American lives) were at risk. But when the situation hit the fan, our boys in blue acted calmly and carefully, managing to extract a hostage from what appeared to be a no-win situation. They also killed three pirates and took another one into custody.
As a result, the Obama administration gets to claim a national security victory of sorts, and there's now a serious debate among the chattering classes as to what should be done to eliminate the piracy threat in the Gulf of Aden and the waters south of Somalia.
It's an interesting time to be writing a paper on pirate organization and its effect on local social and political organization, let me tell you. I heard enough inaccurate information (The pirates are ragtag bandits!) in the mainstream press this weekend to make FOX News look like the arbiter of journalistic integrity.
The pirates are not ragtag bandits. As we're arguing in our paper, they are well-trained, well-equipped, and well-organized. And one defeat at the hands of the United States Navy isn't going to stop their lucrative industry. Too many people depend on their access to resources.
As Robert Kaplan points out, the actual act of piracy is much less of a problem in relative terms than is the issue of the total lawlessness in much of Somalia that makes it possible (and even desirable) for pirates to operate.
The pirates have vowed revenge against the United States and haven't been deterred in the least since the attacks. At least four ships and sixty hostages have been taken since Sunday. Some media outlets appeared to take yesterday's near-miss of American Congressman Donald Payne by mortar fire as a sign that they were acting on that promise. That's highly unlikely; the attack on Payne's plane occurred in Mogadishu (which rests midway down the coastline of southern Somalia), while most Somali pirates operate out of Puntland, a semi-autonomous region on the very tip of the Horn of Africa. Another clue? Militant Islamists claimed responsibility, saying that they were attacking "the enemy of Allah who arrived to spread democracy in Somalia."
You've gotta love a group that knows what they stand against.
And there's the problem with using military force to go after the pirates. Up to now, the Somali pirates have mostly avoided aligning themselves with the Islamists and al-Qaeda. Strange times make for strange bedfellows, however. If the pirates see their work as seriously threatened by the United States, who's to say they won't look to the Islamists for an alliance? Even if they don't tack that way, there's clear evidence that the pirates may stop treating their hostages so well. That hurts their chances of getting ransom money and makes them more like terrorists in the eyes of the global community, but it could make them seem more like heroes at home, where they're lauded for bringing in much-needed foreign currency.
If either of the above scenarios plays out, Obama's strong response to the pirates could backfire in a major way. Which wouldn't be a new thing for U.S. policy in Africa; we get it wrong more often than we get it right, especially when it comes to dealing with failed states.
Some things never change.
UPDATE: Then again, maybe God's on our side. (Or at least that of the Chinese.) Seems an attempted pirate attack on Chinese merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden was foiled on Monday by - wait for it - dolphins.