Foreign Affairs

Pirates Now and Then

If we thought incoming president Barack Obama had a lot on his plate before, we can add another international crisis to the growing list.

The United Nations has just endorsed a plan to recommend freezing the assets of pirates like those off Somalia, and imposing a "travel ban" on them. But the AK-47-wielding privateers are undeterred by what can only be described as an impotent symbolic decree, from a largely impotent symbolic international body. It will be up to the US and other nations to address the rising threat of piracy before it is too late. And Obama should get in touch with his hawkish side real fast.

While it’s likely he and his as yet incomplete staff are looking primarily at the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with perhaps tertiary concern for Russia, the threat to international waters — and not just off Somalia — is quickly becoming an unchecked and out-of-control war-in-waiting, one that the rogue bands of marauders are currently winning summarily.

The Somali pirates took nearly 100 ships this year, and made off with valuable loot in the form of oil, weapons, food and resources, much of which never made it back to starving and struggling Somalis on land of course. It’s become nearly impossible to stop them, so corporations and countries have been meeting their ransom requests, which are routinely in the millions, just in order to get their crews back alive.

It’s not that their technology or weapons capabilities are all that sophisticated. By most accounts they use rickety speed boats, AK 47s, rocket-propelled grenades and market-available GPS devices. But they have been traveling farther and farther off the coasts, and the danger areas are growing. With every weapon cache they take and every million-dollar ransom they harvest, it is only a matter of time before important water ways are virtually un-navigable and Somalia sinks even deeper into a black hole of collapse.

Piracy, of course, isn’t new. In fact, it’s thousands of years old. But one of the worst moments in maritime terrorism was not that long ago.

The Barbary Wars endured from 1801-1805, and from 1812-1816. During that time pirates from Algeria, Tunis and Tripoli captured more than one million Christians. Paying tribute, as was accustomed, prolonged their reign and heightened the havoc they reaped on European and American merchant ships.

It was only when the newly-formed United States summoned its courage and military might — in fact building a Navy practically from scratch — and invaded Northern Africa on land that this early reign of Islamic terrorism ended and catalyzed an American policy that has long stood thereafter — we do not negotiate with terrorists.

There are important differences between the Barbary Wars and modern piracy in Africa, Asia, and South America. The Muslim nation-states that captured merchant ships in the early 1800s did so for political and religious purpose. Christians were targeted and removed from ships for enslavement on land until they died or converted to Islam. Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman told Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1786, "It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise."

Today’s pirates do not appear to have such lofty goals. They are primarily out for money and weapons. As Tanner Campbell, an expert in maritime conflict, explained, "the intent is to profit, not create political change or acquire ruling power." But that should not allay fears that terrorism proper will not soon follow.

The dangers in Somalia are many-fold. They are developing capabilities that terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and others will learn and leverage. "Organizations that may wish to create disruptions in global and particularly western economies are now aware and capable of acquiring a skill set to do so as a result of an innovative piracy industry," according to Campbell.

Further, there’s the issue of funding. Piracy off eastern Africa could be helping to fund terrorist organizations even now, and the guerilla warfare experience they would bring to an Al Qaeda would be invaluable.

The unrest and chaos after a collapsed Somali government birthed the current phenomenon. Somali fisherman first took to the seas with weapons to plunder the tuna-rich waters and scare off commercial fishermen. Without a Somali leadership, both their daring and their capabilities grew. Targets shifted from fishermen to oil tankers.

But the philosophical differences between the Barbary pirates and the Somali pirates do not mean different strategies should be deployed. Pirates are pirates, and if anything the complexity of global terrorism today should make for an even stronger case that this battle needs to be fought on land, in Somalia.

The gap between the first two Barbary Wars is a very instructive warning to us. After a successful invasion of Tripoli in 1805 forced a peace treaty and a presumed end to Barbary terrorism, the War of 1812 provided an effective distraction for US troops and its leadership. We turned our backs and once again reluctantly paid hefty ransoms just to sail the seas unfettered. In 1815 we waged another war on North Africa, and forced another peace treaty. But this time, we left ships there to enforce it.

Obama’s foreign policy muscle is untested. If we think him frighteningly conflict-averse now, it’s nearly impossible to imagine him ordering our marines to the shores of Somalia, where President Clinton twice pulled out too early.

But the burden of defeating Somali pirates cannot be borne by America alone. Our forces are already stretched thin by war in Iraq and Afghanistan. To dedicate sufficient naval assets to the Somali problem would deprive us of the means of fighting elsewhere.

Obama favors “soft power”: diplomacy between nations to defuse crises. This is impossible with Somalia, which has no government with which we could negotiate and which has any power to stop the piracy. Hard power must be deployed — possibly even to provide an interim government in Somalia — and that hard power must be that of the other Western nations and India that are capable of doing so.

The Indian navy is a very capable force. Joined with British, French and possibly some small American force and united under a joint command, it can solve this problem.

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