Somalia is back in the news. We've been here before. Think back to 1993 and Washington's abortive nation-building effort.
Cobbled together from former colonies, Somalia suffered through a military coup, international conflict, and civil war before disintegrating. A de facto independent, though unrecognized, nation emerged in the north called Somaliland. The south turned into a patchwork of fiefdoms run by various warlords and clans.
In 1992 the Bush administration initiated a feeding mission (named Operation Restore Hope) that led to a United Nations peace-keeping operation, which the Clinton administration turned into a nation-building exercise. The result was the deaths of 18 U.S. troops in Mogadishu, draining Washington's enthusiasm for the mission. The UN withdrew in early 1995, while an African Union garrison, still on station, proved no more successful.
After 9/11 the U.S. backed some of the warlords it earlier fought in the name of battling terrorism. International mediation helped spawn the Transitional Federal Government, irrelevant until 2006, when Ethiopia, backed by the U.S., invaded and ousted the so-called Islamic Courts Union, a group of Islamic militias. Human Rights Watch reports that "Ethiopian, Somali transitional government, and insurgent forces have all violated the laws of war with impunity," leading to a "human catastrophe." In January Ethiopia withdrew, allowing Islamist groups, including the al-Shabab militia, to regain control in many areas.
Out of this imbroglio emerged a half dozen entrepreneurial pirate gangs. Last year there were 111 attacks and 42 successful hijackings in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean (which, however, accounted for fewer than half of the world's pirate attacks). So far piracy remains more nuisance than threat. Shippers continue to ply the same routes and refuse to arm their crews, considering it cheaper to pay ransom than take effective countermeasures.
Some analysts have attempted to tie Somali piracy to terrorism. But David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, notes: "There is no evidence that piracy is directly linked to international terrorism." Similarly, Commander John Patch (ret.), formerly with the Office of Naval Intelligence, writes that "the facts fail to support allegations of terrorist linkages." Some observers point to pirate money to and cooperation with the al-Shabab militia. But there is no evidence that al-Shabab is interested in attacking American targets, and, notes Shinn, "the alliance between the pirates and al-Shabab is fragile." If al-Shabab attempted to strike at Americans, Washington should target al-Shabab directly. Says Patch: "In its current form and scope, piracy threatens no vital U.S. national security interests."
Yet there is talk of another United Nations peacekeeping mission. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says such a deployment "should remain the United Nations' goal" though at the moment it "would be a high-risk option."
Some U.S. pundits want direct military action. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol suggested a reprise of the Marines' Barbary Coast role "by going ashore in Africa to destroy the pirates' safe havens." James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation proposed "going into Somalia and rooting out the bases." Former UN Ambassador John Bolton advocated a "coalition of the willing" to attack targets in Somalia. The Hudson Institute's Seth Cropsey called for a "multilateral naval/amphibious operation that denies pirates the bases they need to operate."
Of course, there are no "bases" in military terms. The pirates could easily shift their operations (as, in fact, they've done before). Invading would inevitably push pirates, Islamists, and common Somalis together to against the U.S. Moreover, such intervention presages an extended occupation, new attempt at nation-building, and a repeat of 1993. The only sensible policy, advocated by Jesse Walker of Reason Magazine, is "butt out" and "at least refrain from making" Somalia's problems any worse.
So far the Obama administration demonstrates no interest in refighting Bill Clinton's mission. The military indicates that the support of the Somali people would be necessary before hitting pirates on land and acting Assistant Secretary Phillip Carter says that the administration has learned from 1993 and does not want to "drive the process."
One positive step that Washington could take would be to recognize the government in Somaliland, helping it draw investment from abroad and engage in trade overseas. Moreover, the U.S. should indicate its openness to any governing coalition to emerge in the rest of Somalia so long as it does not promote terrorism against America.
Some form of stable, local governance would be the best response to piracy. Despite spending money wildly, the pirates are not well-liked. Complains Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud, the new president of Puntland, the autonomous coastal province in which most of the pirates are based: "The pirates are spoiling our society." Religious and traditional leaders see the activity as violating Islamic and tribal norms. Pirate gang leader Abshir Boyah told the New York Times: "Man, these Islamic guys want to cut my hands off."
In the meantime, the U.S. government should consider legislation to clarify the legal rights of companies to defend their ships. Congress should revive the concept of Letters of Marque, an authority granted by the Constitution. Congress could authorize private contractors who could be hired by ship owners to capture or kill pirates.
Freedom of ocean transit has long been an objective of the U.S. government, appropriately backed by naval patrols. But there is a difference where the governing authorities are responsible (as in the celebrated case of the Barbary Pirates, who plundered Europe's sea towns as well as vessels). The greatest contribution for any naval effort should come from other states -- whose armed forces perform few of the larger security duties which dominate the U.S. Navy's mission. Notes Commander Patch: "Because the U.S. Navy lacks the resources to effectively accomplish even a fraction of its assigned missions, treating piracy for what it is -- criminal activity -- should lessen the demands on an already overtaxed American fleet."
Given the difficulty in intercepting would-be sea-jackers, governments should consider combining offensive with defensive operations. That should include disabling pirates even if they are not at that moment attacking a ship. Pirates (as opposed to "bases") could be targeted on shore?however, they operate amidst the civilian population, making it hard to strike without harming others. Admittedly, the latter possibility apparently doesn't bother historian Victor Davis Hanson, who contends that "disproportionate measures against the shore should be taken," meaning "a lethal air assault should immediately follow" every pirate attack. Unfortunately, Washington has "been there, done that." The U.S. has launched a number of air attacks on suspected terrorists in Somalia; even these very limited strikes, aimed at one to a handful of al-Qaeda operatives, resulted in numerous civilian casualties.
Finally, interested states should adopt national legislation and work through the UN Security Council to create an international legal framework to deal with piracy. Shippers should be authorized to take whatever steps that they deem necessary to defend their vessels. Governments should be empowered to use deadly force against pirates even when the latter are not directly threatening foreign ships or crews. Jurisdiction should be granted to all governments to try and punish pirates, irrespective of where and against whom they were operating. An international process should be established for the trial and punishment of captured pirates, perhaps headquartered in nearby Kenya. Pirates have placed themselves outside of the law and should not be protected by the West's commitment to the law.
Pursuing a responsible foreign policy does not mean being an international pushover. It does, however, mean distinguishing between obnoxious criminal actions and significant geopolitical threats. Somali piracy is the former. The U.S. will do best by expecting others to do more to protect their own interests.
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