what to do with puntland?
Jay Bahadur, about whom I know nothing beyond the fact that he's writing a book about Puntland, had an interesting op-ed in Sunday's New York Times:
In any serious attempt to combat piracy, Puntland must play an integral role. Yet it is not recognized as a legitimate actor in the region and has been financially abandoned by the international community, which continues to ignore the reality on the ground in favor of the flimsy transitional federal government, a 550-member parliamentary hodgepodge ruling over a few checkpoints in Mogadishu, hundreds of miles from any real pirate activity. A collection of ex-warlords and self-styled moderate Islamists, this is a government that does not govern; its M.P.’s have no constituents, its ministers no portfolios, and it exercises nothing close to control of the violence within its supposed borders.I agree with Bahadur that the West should stop pretending that working with the transitional "government" in Mogadishu is the best/only way to secure Somalia. It's not, and continuing with the fiction that the authorities in Mogadishu are in any way capable of controlling or securing their territory does no one* any good.
...Despite Puntland’s limited capacity, Mr. Farole is committed to taking the fight to the pirates. Indeed, the government of Puntland has been advocating a strict policy of nonnegotiation with pirates since the beginning of the crisis. On those occasions that Puntland’s tiny (and now defunct) coast guard has been given the authority by shipowners to liberate hijacked vessels, the pirates have tended to melt away, content to keep their lives rather than their prize.
Successful land operations in Puntland’s coastal towns have accompanied these marine assaults. One afternoon, while in Bossaso, the president personally led a sudden raid on a gang of pirates preparing to shove off into the Gulf of Aden. These would-be hijackers joined the more than 100 convicted pirates, many with life sentences, being held in Puntland’s lone prison.
However, Bahadur's views on the potential of the Puntland government to stop piracy strike me as a bit too rosy. Every observer of the situation I know believes that many, if not most, of Puntland's authorities receive kickbacks from the pirates. It's one of those "facts" that everyone knows and no one can prove.
Why is it reasonable to believe that Puntland's administrators receive payments from the pirate ransoms? It's just about the only plausible explanation as to how the pirates are able to operate with such ease. Yes, they have guns, but so do lots of other residents of the region, so that doesn't fully explain their power. What's missing is an explanation as to the Puntland government's rather selective anti-piracy activity, as well as clear data on the relationship between the pirate bosses (many of whom actually live in Somaliland), members of the "national" government, and local authorities.
As Bahadur points out, when the Puntland government chooses to do so, it can actually be fairly effective at stopping pirate activity. But why does it choose to act in such a limited fashion? It's not as though it would be difficult to capture many of the pirates, especially when they're in the drunken stupors that inevitably follow big ransom payouts. A useful study of this issue would examine the conditions under which Puntland goes after pirates and those under which it does not. If that data were possible to obtain (and I'm under no illusion that it is), I imagine it would be fairly interesting.
Still, Bahadur's central point regarding the need to work with Puntland's administration rather than ignoring it or treating it as troublesome is solid. It's long past time for American policy makers to stop pretending that a country called Somalia exists in any meaningful sense. Puntland's authorities (and, to a much greater extent, their neighbors to the north in Somaliland), have semi-successfully created order out of chaos. Since the only other people in the region who seem to have figured out how to do so are Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda, doesn't it make sense that we'd want to work with the people who've managed it through more peaceful means?
*With the possible exception of defense contractors training what exists of the Somali military.