international analysis and commentary

Conceding the war, winning the battles against Somali pirates


More than thirty months into the international community’s counter-piracy campaign off the Somali coasts, hijacking attempts have tripled; ransom revenues are up 600%; and the at-risk waters have expanded dramatically. The last year, in particular, has marked high times on the high seas – witnessing nearly 320 attacks.

Thankfully, the southwest monsoon has compelled many pirates to hang up their tricorns for the summer.  Presented with this fortuitous respite, it would behoove us to consider two questions: why has the current approach failed; and what can be done moving forward?

On its own merits, the current strategy is fundamentally sound. Taking a cue from the successful Malacca Straits campaign, it relies on a formidable naval presence to deter piracy and protect commercial shipping in the short term while working towards the ultimate goal of regional stabilization. Efforts to put this plan into practice, though, have been confounded by two inescapable realities. 

First, the western Indian Ocean is a vast blue expanse. Since the 2008-2009 naval buildup, the pirates have taken full advantage of the available maneuvering room – switching the balance of their attacks from the confined, well-policed Gulf of Aden to the less patrolled open ocean. Consequently, by tripling the at-risk waters and dispersing their activity, the pirates have masterfully maneuvered the international naval force between Scylla and Charybdis – i.e. partake in a vexing game of cat and mouse or concede real estate. In either case, the maritime marauders remain undeterred and the seas unprotected. 

Second, the international community does not have a good inside man. On the one hand, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) lacks the wherewithal to assume this role. The hotbed of Somali piracy, Puntland province, lies outside direct TFG control – limiting its ability to affect constructive political and economic change. Frosty relations with Puntland and a pitched conflict against Al-Shabaab have also sapped TFG’s diplomatic and military utility. On the other hand, the Puntland provincial government is rife with corruption – so much so that the UN has refused to outfit the provincial coast guard for fear that members may become pirates themselves. Consequently, without a direct conduit into Somali society, little can be done to structurally disincentivize piracy. 

By simultaneously thwarting progress on both the military and structural fronts, this parallel double fault has effectively eviscerated the counter-piracy campaign. Finding a near-term remedy, unfortunately, is highly unlikely on four accounts.

First, regional geography precludes real military improvement. The western Indian Ocean, even with the Brazil-sized area already in play, still affords the pirates considerable latitude. Overcoming this space advantage and depriving the marauders of their “disperse and dilute” strategy is well-beyond international capabilities, or as one high ranking State Department official bluntly noted, “There aren’t enough ships on the planet to patrol the entire Indian Ocean.” Furthermore, the region’s unfavorable island distribution limits the extent to which ground-based radars and aerial surveillance can compensate for naval deficiencies.  

Second, the pirates have a firm grasp on Puntland province. Last year alone, ransom revenues dwarfed the provincial government’s budget by $200 million. In a region bereft of economic opportunities, this cash disparity affords considerable influence. However, if the carrot fails, the pirates have the armed strength to extend Pablo Escobar’s infamous “plata o plomo” offer. Under these circumstances, the international community lacks a diplomatic recourse for turning the provincial government into a counter-piracy asset.  Pressure and funding cuts, for instance, risk driving it closer to the pirates, whereas inducements make little headway against “an offer you can’t refuse.”

Third, reprising UNISOM is politically unviable. Overall, there is insufficient pretext for an internationally sanctioned military operation. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 effectively established “widespread and systematic attacks which may amount to crimes against humanity” as the new minimum standard for intervention. Piracy, even when coupled with famine and a mounting al Qaeda presence, falls well short of this threshold. While the Security Council certainly reserves the right to violate its own precedents, it would be hard-pressed to justify doing so for a thrice-failed intervention.  Moreover, there is little risk that the West will act unilaterally. If for no other reason, painful and vivid memories of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu will surely keep the US out of Somalia, and therefore Europe as well.

Fourth and most importantly, the West will not foot the repair bill. Years of fiscal imprudence have driven Europe and America to initiate a series of austerity programs – under which additional counter-piracy funding fails to cut the mustard. Not only does it rank low on the list of Western priorities, but also the returns on investment are dismal. Consequently, in an era where the sacred budgetary cows are now fair game, it is inconceivable that “gramma’s pension” or “funding for the troops” would be jeopardized for some buccaneers half a world away.

Combined, this diverse set of Herculean obstacles has effectively blocked all strategic-level avenues to revitalizing the campaign. Quite frankly, in this state of affairs, top-down efforts to eradicate piracy will prove not only costly but futile as well. In other words, welcome to the Golden Age of Somali piracy.

With that said, the future holds more than just prospects of doom and gloom. Yes, structural factors have granted the pirates a license to plunder; however, nothing says that they must succeed in their endeavors.  Tactical-level counter-piracy efforts, therefore, provide a sensible and potentially fruitful way forward. In fact, this bottom-up approach has already shown promising results. Vigilance alone has decreased the pirates’ overall success rate from 38% to 26%. Moreover, an increasing reliance on enhanced defensive measures, such as ship citadels and private security teams, has caused this figure to plummet to 13% in 2011. Consequently, as we sail head-on into the Golden Age of Somali piracy, it would be wise to heed Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” or maybe two at current ransom prices.