Against All Flags

Questions and answers about pirates and Somalia


Looks like we're good at shooting pirates. Why not send in the Navy and root out the rest?

America's SEALs did an extraordinary job of rescuing Richard Phillips, the captain captured by pirates off the shores of Somalia, but there's a big difference between saving a hostage and putting a dent in hostage-taking. The Somali coastline is approximately 2,000 miles long, and the pirates there strike quickly in small boats. They pay close attention to naval activity and adjust their activities accordingly. The U.S. and its allies simply don't have the resources to cover all that water all the time.

There are more-modest suggestions floating around for international patrols, in which the region's coast guards pool their resources and the western powers merely offer technical expertise and the like. That's a more plausible approach in terms of the costs involved, but it will fall far short of "rooting out the rest."

But you don't have to patrol everywhere to be effective. Just raise the risks of doing business and the problem will decrease to manageable levels.

There's some truth to that. But in that case, the most important thing is to make it costlier to attack a ship in the first place, whether or not the navy is nearby. A decentralized threat demands a decentralized defense.

Do you mean arming the boats themselves?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There are risks to arming crews, just as there are risks to leaving crews unarmed. For each particular ship, the owners—and their insurers—are better able to assess those relative hazards than any pundit bloviating from afar. Some companies might prefer to give weapons to their employees; some might prefer to hire private security; some might prefer training their crews in vigilance and nonlethal defense. And given that training people to use weapons—or hiring people who are already trained—is expensive, some might prefer just to buy insurance. (Note, though, that insurance rates in the Gulf of Aden have risen sharply, by some reports more than tenfold, since the recent wave of ship seizures began. As the piracy problem increases, the market responds.)

In addition to all that, though, there are legal barriers to carrying arms onboard, and these may have distorted the ship owners' calculations. In the wake of the recent attacks, there's been some chatter about negotiating a new international agreement to ease or eliminate those restrictions. That's an excellent idea that would at least give the shippers more options.

Self-defense won't solve the problem entirely, though. The piracy problem off Somalia is driven not just by opportunity at sea but also by circumstances onshore.

So you want to attack the pirates' bases on the mainland?

No no no no no. The idea that we could sweep in, destroy the pirates' infrastructure, and consider the problem solved vastly overestimates both the extent and the importance of any particular organization's infrastructure. Let me say it again: The Somali coastline is 2,000 miles long. Pirates have shifted their bases of operation before—since 2007, for example, most of their activity has moved from the waters near Mogadishu towards the breakaway statelet of Puntland. They could easily pull up stakes again. And if you do eliminate one group of criminals, you still haven't eliminated or even, in the long run, reduced the crime. Think of the drug war: The authorities are sometimes able to break up particular gangs or cartels, but the profit motive that drives people into the drug business is still there, so other gangs and cartels take their place. At best, you'll be playing a game of whack-a-mole. At worst, you'll also be whacking a lot of civilians in the process.

Somali piracy is a nuisance, but it isn't a national security issue. Some hawks have tried to link the pirates to jihadist terrorism, but their arguments haven't held up: As Commander John Patch, a former director of the National Maritime Intelligence Watch at the Office of Naval Intelligence, pointed out in the December 2008 issue of Proceedings, a journal published by the U.S. Naval Institute, there isn't any credible evidence of such an alliance. He adds that "there is no great risk of terrorists posing as pirates or adopting their methods either to seize a ship for hostages or to use the vessel itself as a weapon by igniting volatile cargo. To be sure, maritime terrorism is clearly a proven method of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, but piracy cannot be plausibly conflated with it."

Pirate activity might not be a threat to national security, but it's still costly.

Absolutely. But you have to keep your perspective. The cost of the fight would be far greater than the cost imposed by piracy itself.

So if you don't send the Marines, what do you send? Aid? Nation-building advisors?

The wise men in Washington are no better equipped at remolding Somali society than they are at remolding the auto industry. The aid we have sent there over the last few decades has almost invariably ended up boosting the power of one local faction or another.

Somalia is capable of producing for itself; it's just that poor governance and civil strife periodically get in the way. Unfortunately, the U.S. has done much more to foster that poor governance and fan that civil strife than to end them. The evidence of this goes all the way back to the 1970s, when, for reasons related to the Cold War, the Ford administration started sponsoring a brutal military regime run by a self-proclaimed Marxist, Siad Barre.

Hold on. If this was part of the Cold War, why were we siding with a Marxist?

Somalia's great rival was Ethiopia, and Ethiopia had just joined the Soviet bloc.

Did Barre change his ways when he started getting U.S. aid?

He and his representatives deployed a different set of platitudes when begging from their benefactors. But the basic structure of the Somali state stayed the same. It didn't have much to do with either socialism or capitalism as a set of principles: The regime was a kleptocracy in which those who had political pull stole from those who did not. The old tribal structure adjusted itself to the new political context. Now one subclan could expropriate a chunk of land from another, start a "project" on it, and present it to the international community as aid-worthy "economic development."

After Barre was overthrown in 1991, such interclan battles stopped being subsumed within the system and spilled out into the open. Figures once called bureaucrats were now called warlords. But the civil strife of the early 1990s was essentially the same process carried out in a bloodier way.

And that's when the United States and United Nations sent in soldiers?

Yes. As we all know, that didn't go well.

But when the troops pulled out, didn't everything go to pot?

You've got it backwards. The U.S./U.N. intervention made things worse: It undercut local farmers by dumping free food into circulation, herded self-reliant nomads into disease-ridden refugee camps, and disarmed civilians while leaving the warlords' stockpiles largely untouched. At every point during the country's crisis in the early to mid 1990s, the most constructive responses came from the Somalis themselves. (The local Red Crescent Society was responsible for more successful relief than all the foreign efforts combined.) When the outsiders left, the peacemaking elements of Somali society were able to reassert themselves, with elders arbitrating truces between the clans and entrepreneurs establishing a growing economy.

The results were hardly utopian—literacy rates were low, violence was down but was still fairly high, and the drinking water wasn't always clean—but conditions were improving, and by the region's standards they were pretty impressive. A 2004 study for the World Bank revealed that Somalia had as many roads per capita as its immediate neighbors, a better telecommunications infrastructure, and lower rates of extreme poverty; despite the absence of a central government, the country had reasonably effective systems of courts, credit, social insurance, and electric power. After 9/11, though, when the U.S. started channeling aid to the warlords, the fragile social peace started breaking down.

Wait. Back up. America aided the warlords?

Yes. The Bush administration worried that jihadists were seeking shelter in Somalia, so it allied itself with secular Somalis, who styled themselves the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism." They included some of the very same figures the U.S. had battled in the early '90s.

How did that work out?

The warlords used the aid to pursue their own agendas, and the fighting ramped back up. The chaos pushed ordinary Somalis into the arms of the Islamic Courts Union, a confederation of sharia-based arbitrators that gradually took over roughly half the country, including the nominal capital, Mogadishu.

Displeased with this result, Washington backed an Ethiopean invasion and occupation of the country. This was supposed to establish a central government for once and for all. Instead it was a gory failure whose chief effect was to rip apart civil society and turn the country into a violent free-for-all. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2008, "the last two years are not just another typical chapter in Somalia's troubled history. The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe facing Somalia today threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of Somalis on a scale not witnessed since the early 1990s."

One effect was to push more people into desperate and risky ways of making a living. Such as piracy.

That wasn't the beginning of the piracy, though.

No, pirates had been active off the Somali coast since the '90s. At first, to give the devil his due, this was a sort of self-defense, as fishermen fought off foreigners poaching in their waters and seized European boats illegally dumping nuclear waste. Such targets made the freebooters into folk-heroes, and it is one of the two main reasons the pirates have a fair amount of popular support onshore.

What's the other reason?

A wise thief learns to spread the wealth around.

The buccaneers still describe themselves with PR-savvy names like the "National Volunteer Coast Guard." But as it became clear that there were enormous profits in piracy, any innocent sailor on an inadequately defended boat became potential prey. Once the war wiped out many other means of making a living, the number of pirate attacks increased further.

Now Ethiopia has withdrawn and left the "transitional government" in charge, to the extent that anyone in Somalia is in charge. The newly elected president of the transitional government, incidentally, is Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, whose previous job title was commander in chief of the Islamic Courts Union.

Let me get this straight. To combat communism in east Africa, the United States propped up a Marxist dictator. After sending troops to battle the warlords, it intervened again to assist the warlords. It did this about-face to stanch the growth of Islamism, but the effect was to put an Islamist group in charge of the country. And after Washington backed an invasion and occupation of the nation to end the Islamic Courts Union's control, the result was a government run by a former commander of the Islamic Courts Union?

You can see why I'm skeptical about a war on the pirates. It'll probably end with Obama dedicating a 60-foot statue of Blackbeard in the middle of Mogadishu.

So how do we fix the problems on the mainland, if we don't invade and don't send aid?

We butt out. If we can't solve Somalia's problems, we can at least refrain from making them worse. The closest the country has had to a period of optimism and growth came when the international community—with the ignoble exceptions of the fish thieves and waste dumpers—largely left the place to its own devices. Do that long enough, and the Somalis may develop institutions strong enough to help rein in the pirates. In the meantime, the best place for us outsiders to focus our efforts is in finding smarter, more effective ways to defend our ships.

That isn't a very optimistic conclusion.

Sorry, but the region isn't exactly bubbling over with reasons for hope. It's easy to call vaguely for humanitarian assistance or for military action. It's harder when you think through the likely consequences of such interventions, especially in light of the consequences of all the earlier aid and war.

Whether you're building a working society on the land or protecting ships at sea, real solutions are only going to come incrementally, experimentally, and at the initiative of the people directly affected. The best thing the world's governments can do is to figure out what they might be doing that blocks rather than facilitates such gradual, bottom-up change, and then to stop doing it.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.