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War Is Boring: In Somalia, Security Gains Mean Piracy Decline
By David Axe
ABOARD U.S.S. DONALD COOK, October 3, 2009 -- In 2008, Somali pirates hijacked more than 100 large commercial vessels, provoking a massive international response. More than 40 warships from a dozen navies subsequently assembled to patrol the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. At the same time, diplomats forged consensus approaches that included U.N. declarations governing operations in Somali waters, military accords uniting formerly rival navies, and legal frameworks for prosecuting suspected pirates in various national jurisdictions.
The result, a year into this "global war on piracy," is that successful hijackings are way down. In the three months ending in September 2008, there were 17 hijackings in East African waters. In the same period this year, there was just one. The decline of piracy "is a fact," according to Steve Chick, the Royal Navy commodore of a five-ship NATO flotilla patrolling east of Djibouti under Operation Ocean Shield. World Politics Review spoke to Chick during a four-day embarkment this month on the U.S.S. Donald Cook, a U.S. destroyer assigned to NATO.
Chick attributed the suppression of piracy to several factors, including improved military coordination and the widespread adoption of better self-defense tactics by the world's shipping companies -- sailing faster, for instance, and lining a ship's railings with barbed wire to ward off boarders.
But most importantly, Chick said, the countries where pirates are based have made big strides in policing formerly lawless seaside towns, thereby preventing pirates from ever getting far from shore. After all, "piracy has its roots on land," Martin Murphy, a maritime security analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, told World Politics Review last year.
With foreign assistance, the three Somali states -- the Republic of Somali, the republic's autonomous region of Puntland and the independent-but-unrecognized Somaliland -- have all boosted their naval forces in recent months. And greater cooperation between Somali governments and other nations is likely, as the Somalis' capacity for counterpiracy operations grows.
In May, the tiny Somaliland navy, working alongside Somaliland police, attacked a pirate enclave outside Berbera and captured five pirates and two armed boats. This represents a marked and surprising improvement. In September of last year, a State Department official told World Politics Review that no Somali "entities have the capacity, cooperatively or alone, to fully address the piracy threat."
But Chick insisted that suppressing piracy is not beyond the means of today's admittedly nascent Somali governments. "Pirates are not a high-tech threat," he told World Politics Review during one of his routine visits to the Donald Cook. "Piracy doesn't need a high-tech solution."
NATO has worked closely with Puntland to help that government stand up what Chick calls a "fledgling coast guard" capable of patrolling around pirate enclaves. Not coincidentally, in August, Puntland and the Republic of Somalia's U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government signed an agreement allowing the TFG to eventually base its own naval forces in Puntland, to assist with counterpiracy operations.
The agreement was part of a broader accord clarifying the relationship between Puntland and the TFG. Puntland is autonomous but technically still part of the Republic of Somalia. The new accord makes Somalia officially a federal republic.
The TFG established its own 500-strong naval infantry force, equipped with guns and small boats, in June. To lead the force, Farah Ahmed Omar, a naval officer in the 1980s under the regime of former Somalian President Siad Barre, came out of retirement. Omar's infantry trained in Djibouti, where the U.S. and France both maintain large military bases. The Pentagon began supplying arms to the TFG this summer.
The TFG troops would be a "useful force to assist" NATO, even if they "operate only on the beach," Chick said. While NATO protects shipping on the high seas, TFG, Puntland and Somaliland forces can clear out pirate camps and interdict pirate boats close to shore.
At the moment, NATO only has ties to Puntland. But Chick said it's within his mandate to assist the TFG, as well. "There's a line of operations in the current NATO Operation Ocean Shield that allows for capacity building," he said.
One concern is that developed nations might lose interest in the piracy war, owing to the reduced level of attacks. Countries might prematurely declare victory and withdraw resources before Somali forces are capable of sustaining security gains on their own. "How long can you sustain it?" Cmdr. Derek Granger, captain of Donald Cook, asked regarding the NATO Operation Ocean Shield. "It's expensive keeping ships underway."
David Axe is an independent correspondent, a World Politics Review contributing editor, and the author of "War Bots." He blogs at War is Boring. His WPR column, War is Boring, appears every Wednesday.
Title photo: Sailors stand guard as the USS Donald Cook departs Djibouti, Sept. 24, 2009 (David Axe).
Source: World Politics Review, 30 Sep 2009