By Land, Not By Sea
As we wait another day for the resolution of this hostage situation by the Horn of Africa, it's worth understanding the nature of the piracy problem off the Somali coast, which has exploded over the past several years. Matt Yglesias, who unlike most people in the media has actually written a fair bit about Somalia, has a great short piece on this, and at the risk of just reiterating it let me just summarize his two basic points.
First, it's a big ocean, and no amount of sophisticated monitoring systems or military patrols will be able to proactively stop pirating. If the areas near the coasts become secure, the pirates just move out further into open water. You're not going to secure the entire 70-odd percent of the planet covered by the oceans. And accompanying every shipping container with a military protector vessel is impractical.
Second, the way to end piracy is to provide opportunity for the pirates on land. Somalia has essentially had no government for close to 20 years, and the money that can be made from piracy significantly dwarfs the money that can be made on land.
To make a long story short, to curb the Somali pirate problem you need to fight them on land. This was recognized by everyone back in December but it hasn’t materialized since nobody really wants to try to mount a serious operation to bring Somali territory under control. And far be it from me to question that decision. I don’t want to either. But given that reality, while we can try to mitigate the pirate problem at sea, we’re never going to resolve it and suggestions that the Obama administration should snap its fingers and make this problem go away are absurd. What we need to do is wait until such time as someone or other establishes some kind of coherent control over Somali territory and then deal with piracy issues as part of our relationship with that person / group / organization or whatever it may be.
Unfortunately, the last time it appeared that a coherent de facto government was emerging in Somalia—the Islamic Courts Movement—we helped sponsor an Ethiopian invasion that plunged the country back into chaos. We need to stop doing that!
Ian Welsh concurs. Peace can only be had with the groups that can secure it. The Ethiopians couldn't hand off Somalia to a transitional government that had no legitimacy. The new "unity government" in Somalia actually includes some more moderate ICU members, and they've vowed to deal with the piracy problem, if they get some funding help. But the hardliners in the al-Shabab movement continue to fight. The Obama Administration apparently is watching al-Shabab closely, but hasn't come to a decision. I don't think we know if the unity government has the legitimacy inside the country among the people yet, but I think striking the al-Shabab camps at this point wouldn't help matters. Whatever the case, there needs to be a larger effort to understand the problems on land in Somalia as a means of stopping the problems at sea, as Russ Feingold has been saying for years.
“With more than a thousand miles of coastline along the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, however, increased maritime patrolling can only do so much. Until stability, the rule of law and effective governance are established, Somalia will remain a safe haven for these pirates. Moreover, until a functioning economy can be established, piracy will remain the most lucrative business in the region.