The recent news coverage of pirates has focused US public attention on Somalia more than at any time since the confrontation between US forces and Somali fighters detailed in the movie Black Hawk Down. Numerous suggestions have been made on how to deal with high seas piracy, but failing to adopt a strategy that resolves Somalia's ongoing instability will undermine any such efforts - piracy in the region benefits from Somali lawlessness and volatility.
A long-term solution to piracy hinges on improving stability and bolstering Somali authorities with which the US can work to advance mutual interests, including clamping down on piracy.
The Somali conundrum
Any discussion of Somalia requires a brief review of the nation's well-earned reputation for lawlessness and instability.
The state of Somalia, located in the Horn of Africa and comprising the former protectorates of British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland, was founded in 1960 and its constitution adopted in 1961 by popular referendum. An unstable parliamentary government was ousted in 1969 by a coup d'état led by General Siad Barre, who ruled until he was violently ousted in late 1990 and early 1991.
The resulting famine led the United Nations Security Council to establish the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM I) in 1992 to facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance and monitor a UN-brokered ceasefire. When violence continued, thereby impeding humanitarian assistance, the US organised the Unified Task Force (UNITAF) to restore order and facilitate provision of humanitarian aid. UNITAF was replaced in May 1993 by the United Nations Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II). UN peacekeepers were attacked in June 1993 by Somali militia. Attacks escalated until 18 American troops and hundreds of Somalis were killed in an October 1993 skirmish depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down.
The UN withdrew from Somalia in March 1995 without restoring a central government, and little progress has been made over the past 14 years. Aside from the autonomous, broadly self-governed enclaves of Somaliland and Puntland in the northern parts of the country, Somalia has suffered over the past 18 years of "governance" by a succession of tribal factions, warlords, Islamist groups, and foreign interventions with and without UN blessing.
Rather than directly intervening in Somalia, the UN, the US and other nations have generally ignored Somalia as a problem too difficult and costly to resolve. Since 2004, the UN and countries like the US have supported the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia diplomatically and financially in an attempt to assert a functioning central government. It is backed by a UN-sanctioned African Union (AU) peacekeeping force.
Unfortunately, the TFG has proven to be a weak institution hindered by a lack of legitimacy among the Somali population. It has repeatedly been dismissed in favour of tribal authorities and quasi-religious conglomerations supported by militia such as the Islamic Courts Union and, more recently, al Shabaab (a group designated as a terrorist Organisation by the US).
Pirates have taken advantage of the lawless situation in Somalia to practice their trade in the waters surrounding the Horn of Africa. As many as 20,000 ships transit it annually, and only a small percentage are subject to documented acts of piracy. Despite the risk of piracy, merchant ships continue to use the seas because it is the cheapest, most cost effective means for moving goods between Europe and Asia.
In response to the increasingly brazen acts of piracy over the past year, the United States and other countries undertook several actions to protect the shipping lanes. The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1816 in June 2008 permitting states to use "all necessary means to repress acts of piracy and armed robbery" in Somali waters, Resolution 1838 in October 2008 called for nations to intensify their efforts to combat piracy in Somalia, Resolution 1851 in December 2008 expanded Security Council approval of anti-piracy efforts to include operations on land.
The US, the European Union, and non-Western countries such as China have dispatched ships to the region to discourage pirates. However, the pirates have not been deterred. Instead they have expanded their range hundreds of miles to escape more heavily patrolled waters.
What to do about Somalia
On-shore operations are a crucial component of piracy: The pirates live in Somalia, get resources for more missions, and collect intelligence from on-shore sources. If anti-piracy efforts are to be successful, an effort must be made to deny them safe harbour.
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