Somali Piracy: On the Horns of a Dilemma?

When most people think of pirates, they probably think of recent movies or of a bygone era when wooden ships using sails were attacked by people looking for precious cargo like gold. However, piracy is running strong in the Gulf of Aden – the body of water between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia east of Africa – one of the world’s most important waterways. Around 11 percent of the world’s shipped petroleum goes through it.
Groups of pirates operating primarily off the coast of northeastern Somalia have been capturing increasingly larger ships from a much wider area at sea. Their recent successful catches include a Hong Kong vessel carrying 36,000 tons of wheat for Iran, a Turkish chemical tanker and a Saudi Arabian oil tanker holding over two million barrels of Saudi oil that was hundreds of miles southeast of Somalia and three times the size of a United States aircraft carrier.
Somali pirates have been launching regular attacks for the last two years. The number of such attacks has been rising from 47 in January to September of 2007 to 86 between these months in 2008. Aside from the ransoms for the ships, cargos and crews, the costs of piracy are the huge increases in insurance premiums and diverted routes.
However, the costs also include the time and money spent by numerous warships from Italy, the U.S., Britain, India, Russia, Turkey and Greece patrolling the Somali coast under a United Nations mandate. However, this has proven to be of only limited effectiveness as the pirates have expanded their reach to over two million square miles while the patrols continue to leave areas open inside the Gulf of Aden, where the Hong Kong vessel was taken, and do not cover much of the route used by the largest oil tankers from the world’s largest oil-producing areas going to Europe and North America. Also, international law prevents many types of engagement, like attacks on the coast, and does not specify to whom captured pirates will be turned over. This has led most experts to conclude that a military solution is impossible.
Instead, a political solution that fosters stability in the country and helps economic development will decrease the piracy. Somalia has suffered due to the lack of a national government since the downfall of the socialist dictator Siad Barre by warlords. Stability seemed on the verge of restoration with the formation of an Islamist government in 2006. However, fearing it would become a haven for Islamic extremists, the Bush administration allowed neighboring Ethiopia (itself worried about such a government so close by) to invade and depose that government. In December 2006, it succeeded in pushing them out and re-established a U.N.-backed government. However, a collection of Islamist factions with funding from Eritrea (to have a proxy war with Ethiopia) and possibly additional funding from the piracy have waged a successful insurgency, regaining most of southern Somalia and threatening its capital.
There is no chance our government will send U.S. forces into Somalia to obtain stability. Our military forces are stretched thin by the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while the American people have no stomach for any more intervention. Also, politicians in both parties remember well the tragedy in 1993 in the First Battle of Mogadishu that led to the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers.
So, to attain the political solution, some believe we need to decide between two bad choices: Allow some piracy or allow Somalia to be taken over by the Islamic groups. Yet, allowing the Islamists to take over is the wrong policy. The strongest Islamic faction is more extreme than the Islamic group that controlled most of the country in 2006. This situation is in some ways eerily similar to that in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, where following decades of war between various factions the international community tolerated the Taliban because they at least brought stability to the country. Like the Taliban, the Somali Islamists have mindsets that are more locally based and have and probably will continue to provide safe havens for Al Qaeda. There is also no guarantee the Islamists will crack down on piracy (perhaps exempting only “Islamic” vessels from attack), for they are possibly gaining revenue from piracy as the Taliban currently do from opium.
According to a peace agreement between the Somali government and a rebel faction, Ethiopian troops are to leave the country by early 2009 and will be replaced by a joint force of this rebel group, the African Union and later the U.N. However, of the promised 8,000 African Union soldiers to replace the Ethiopian troops, less than half have arrived as the violence worsens.
Given this, Ethiopian troops should probably stay longer to maintain the government, especially in case U.N. forces fail to materialize in sufficient numbers. To maintain troop levels would require the international community and especially the U.S. to increase funding and aid to Ethiopia. But this is also problematic as Ethiopian soldiers are disliked by the Somali population. Thus, the piracy situation only presents a multitude of bad choices. If only there was a perfect solution — like in the movies.

Wesley Oliphant is a third-year economics graduate student. He can be reached at