Somalia: There Is No Military Solution to Piracy

Make no mistake — the proliferation of piracy in the Somali coast is a serious problem, not only for the international community but for Somalia in general, and more specifically, for the current Islamist-led government of national unity.  After all, Islamic law has zero tolerance for banditry, whether sea-based or land-based.

That said, piracy in Somalia was not born out of vacuum — it was initially an act of protest by local fishermen agianst the illegal hyper-fishing practiced by numerous fishing companies primarily based in Europe and Asia.  The reckless greed of these “fishing mafia” has been dangerously depleting sea life in that part of the world.  In due course, the local fishermen would be joined by others, including some of the profiteering elements of the Somali civil war, thus creating an identity confusion.

The partnership describes itself as the de facto Somali coast guard.  It offers the following reasons for its controversial activities: to prevent the fishing mafia from abusing the Somali sea resource, and to prevent mercenary ships from dumping toxic chemical waste in the Somali waters.  Leaders of the partnership give interviews to the international media, challenging the conventional wisdom that identifies their acts as “piracy” and the monies they collect as “ransom.”  This claim not only helps them present a moral argument in defense of the partnership’s illegal activities but enables them to score a few public relations points.  However, while the grievance that they highlight is real and deserves serious attention, there is practically zero evidence to indicate that these pirates are driven by altruistic objectives.

Meanwhile, the number of highjacked ships and vessels (commercial or otherwise) and the cost of freeing them and their crews have been escalating.

Today, piracy is not only disrupting international trade, it is preventing the flow of the humanitarian aid to several million Somalis on the verge of starvation and is perpetuating the very culture that has kept Somalia in an abyss of anarchy.  The insurance rate for a single trip in the Gulf of Aden went up from $500 last year to about $20,000 this year.  There are roughly 30,000 ships that travel through the Gulf of Aden every year, and a little over 100 have been victims of piracy in the last 12 months.  This indeed is a serious matter.

However, there is a nagging question that most media seem to ignore: at a time when massive budget cuts are being made even in the wealthiest of the nations, how could the threat of piracy, which is manageable albeit very serious, logically justify the indefinite multi-national deployment of the mightiest navies of the world (operation water circus), which is costlier than the cost imposed by the threat itself?  How many warships are needed in order to carry out a surveillance operation on Eyl and Harardheere where all the Somali pirates are based? 

We are talking about two bone-dry coastal villages where no rat could find a place to hide.  It is not like there is a tourist industry there that could give the commissioned speedboats anchored along the shores of these two villages the appearance of leisure boats.

To adequately understand the piracy problem would require context beyond the illegal activities.  However, in the past eight years, not only America but much of the rest of the world has been inculcated with an ill-advised notion that context is obsolete and that the official statement is all that matters in understanding complex issues such as extremism, terrorism, and indeed piracy.  It goes without saying that this mindset has not only failed to reduce or eradicate any of these ills — it has, in fact, exacerbated them.

Clearly missing in the piracy discussion are a couple of critical factors: first of all, the importance of the Indian Ocean as a premier strategic region in light of the ‘shifting economic balance of power from West to East’ and China’s rapidly expanding influence in Africa.

In his insightful essay — “Center Stage for the 21st Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean” — Robert D. Kaplan presents a compelling argument that the power that controls the Indian Ocean controls the new century.  (Kaplan is one of a few neoconservatives whose ideas still generate some interest; he is a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.)  Kaplan points out that “the Indian Ocean accounts for fully half the world’s container traffic.  Moreover, 70 percent of the total traffic of petroleum products passes through the Indian Ocean, on its way from the Middle East to the Pacific…”  Furthermore, “More than 85 percent of the oil and oil products bound for China cross the Indian Ocean.”

A second factor is what Phil Carter, Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, described in his speech “U.S. Policy in Africa in the 21st Century” at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies last February as “the professionalization of Africa’s security sector.”  If this sounds like a thinly veiled euphemism and a page out of the last administration’s foreign policy playbook, it is.

Currently there are three options being considered: reenergizing the Africa Command Center, known as AFRICOM, which was rejected by all African nations asked to host it; providing US Navy escort services; and simply securing lucrative deals for private security contractors such as Blackwater.  Only one of them is readily available for hire.  In this scenario, Obama’s foreign policy would be inevitably seen as nothing but a continuation of the old bankrupt neocon scheme.

As in the peak of the Cold War era, Somalia remains an exploited pawn in a deadly chess game.  Meanwhile, as Nick Nuttall, the spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, recently said, “European companies and others” will keep using Somalia “as a dumping ground for a wide array of nuclear and hazardous wastes.”  Nuttall confirmed the horrific allegations that “There is uranium radioactive waste.  There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury.  There is also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes — you name it.”

For a real solution to the piracy dilemma, the Obama administration should:

  1. Distance itself from anything that reminds the world of the last eight years;
  2. Ensure safe passage for the humanitarian aid;
  3. Introduce a UN resolution banning the dumping chemical waste in the Somali waters and banning the illegal hyper-fishing in the Somali coast;
  4. Introduce a UN resolution that mandates a massive international effort to clean the countless barrels and containers of radioactive materials dumped in the Somali waters;
  5. Sign a security treaty with the Somali unity government (which will not only mark the first time the US signs any treaty with Somalia but also send a peace message to the rest of the Muslim world that America is indeed ready to establish formal relationship with any one on issues of mutual interest);
  6. Help build a Somali navy to protect its waters;
  7. Use the legal option in order to freeze and confiscate assets.

There is no military solution to this problem.  The military option will only win the pirates more support and sustain the current state of lawlessness.

Abukar Arman is a writer who lives in Ohio.  His articles on Islam, Somalia, and US foreign policy are widely published.  Email: <>.