Sunday, September 13, 2009

As Somali pirates prepare to resume their attacks, so does the pressure to combat them

In a roundtable discussion with journalists and bloggers last Friday, the head of Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151) and his chief of staff offered a few insights into some of the problems they're facing in dealing with piracy, as well how how they hope their naval forces can better the situation. US Navy Rear Admiral Scott Sanders and British Royal Navy Captain Keith Blount spoke from aboard the American guided missile cruiser USS Anzio, while on patrol off the Horn of Africa.

Overall, both officers were upbeat and positive about the problems facing the task force, and other naval elements as well. Admiral Sanders, who assumed command of CTF 151 in mid-August, took pains to point out the inter-operational capabilities that his task force has developed with other nations' naval and security forces and also with civilian organizations, especially within the shipping community. This has helped to reduce the ability of pirates to successfully hijack any vessels this year within the International Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), a sea lane that runs along the southern coast of Oman and Yemen which is a major transit corridor to and from the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

The reduction of pirate incidents within the IRTC is partially the result of focusing major naval elements within this area, using convoys to move merchant traffic and increasing the level of communication between civilian and military nodes. But it must be said that the overall level of piracy off the Horn of Africa (HoA) has also diminished these last few months because of meteorological conditions. If you will, everyone's been taking a breather because the seas have been rough.

The problem for Adm. Sanders and many others is what will happen in the coming months, when the Somali pirates resume their operations. They are facing a well-developed enemy with years of experience in asymmetrical warfare, against whom we in the international community have been unable to effectively combat. Earlier this year we saw the largest international armada ever assembled since the Second World War patrolling the waters off the HoA, one that comprised dozens of nations intent on containing the plight of piracy. And it failed.

Okay, that may sound harsh in light of achievements like the safe movement of vessels through the IRTC, but the reality is that even with this large international naval presence in the region, pirate attacks in the first quarter of 2009 doubled from the year before.

So it leaves one to wonder how much pressure commanders like those involved in this roundtable are facing off the HoA. After all, your predecessors didn't do a particularly good job earlier this year. To make a crude analogy, the situation with Somali pirates today is kind of like Iraq a couple of years after the last invasion. There are no rule books or precedents that can really be applied - though some historical evidence is available. But dealing with Somali pirates is nothing like addressing Barbary pirates.

It should also be remembered that most people think there's an easy way to deal with the situation: Bring in more warships and show the pirates who's really boss. But this is only part of the solution and no real means to stem the attacks can ever come without a land-based effort to address the root causes that compel young men to attack merchant vessels. And the longer it takes to make some real progress combating piracy off East Africa, the quicker the general populace will grow bored off the issue.

If we continue to see container ships or oil tankers seized in the months ahead, there's a chance the average Westerner will throw up their proverbial hands and lose interest in something that affects all of us. Hopefully forces like CTF 151 can prevent this from happening. Otherwise, the gain that have been made in counter-piracy operations over the last half decade will be muted.

Public opinion is what drives political will, and stemming global piracy requires a lot of interest from people outside the security and transportation communities. So there's a lot of pressure on the military forces of many nations to produce some effective results in this undeclared war against pirates.

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