Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Are International Piracy Efforts A Waste Of Money?

The Deputy Prime Minister of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Abdulrahman Adan Ibrahim Ibbi has been reported by the Voice of America to have ridiculed the efforts of the international community to deal with piracy off his country, calling it a "waste of money." Ibbi was speaking at a maritime security conference in Africa, during which he argued that with the proper resources, the TFG could establish an effective coast guard to patrol the seas off their country, or, at least, the waters off those parts of Somalia that the entity has some control over.

The Deputy Prime Minister - who is also the TFG's minister for fisheries and marine resources - had a lot to say about the issue of piracy in his part of the world in the VoA item.

"The international community is paying millions of dollars for its own navy expenses in Somali sea waters. Why don't they pay one percent of that expense to the Somali government to recruit their own coast guard to eradicate this piracy, because we can do it, and we know we can do it and they know we can do it?"

He goes on to say they don't need much money or a big force to do the task. Just some small speedboats that would give the imagined TFG Coast Guard some littoral defence capabilities, as well as sufficient resources to deal with the pirates' bases ashore.

Since we know that their are Somalis with great nautical prowess able to attack vessels thousands of miles from shore and who know how to use weaponry, he's got a point here. It's something I've advocated as recently as a couple of months ago (see here), because the international community will never contain, let alone eradicate, pirates operating from Somalia merely by sending more warships to the region. The only effective solution is for the Somali people to take control of this issue themselves. And here we can see a plea from a senior member of the internationally-recognized TFG asking for assistance to do just so.

The odd thing is that the European Union is preparing to train Somali forces, as the BBC reports here. This is, presumably, to bolster the TFG's military assets as it deals with al-Shabaab, etc. But the piracy problem predates any Islamist insurgency, or whatever you want to call it, in Somalia. So why has there been no support provided to the TFG to enhance its maritime security capabilities?

Perhaps it's because most people consider piracy to be a non-issue, something that only affects a few individuals far, far away. And deploying naval elements to the waters off the Horn of Africa appears to show we're doing "something" with all that expensive hardware.

Yet piracy is something that has global economic, security, political, humanitarian and environmental impacts, in the Somalia theater and elsewhere. And all those warships, aircraft and personnel deployed are a great addition to dealing with things, but far from the overall solution. Indeed, in many cases I would argue that those very naval assets are being used by the global shipping community as a fallback from what those firms should really be doing: Not paying any more ransoms and instead funding the prosecutions of suspected pirates.

Saying to not pay ransoms is very difficult for someone who has spent a lot of time at sea on commercial vessels and has many colleagues who are professional mariners. But the shipping world has fed the maw of the pirate gangs for too long. And while their early intentions were somewhat noble - to protect the lives of mariners being held hostage - it now seems clear that the real goal is to ensure that their vessels and cargoes are freed from pirate captivity. Lax on-board security measures and relying on warships to come to the assistance of their vessels are piss-poor ways to run a business in dangerous waters.

After a decade of paying ever increasing amounts of money to criminal gangs in Somalia, the shipping community has created a Frankenstein they cannot control, or a genie that can't be put back in the bottle. Piracy is first and foremost an economic crime, so by stopping the payments of ransoms would have an impact.

But, of course, it's not likely to happen. The libertarian nature of global shipping could never find a consensus that would allow that. So as I try to be optimistic, what about my second thought about prosecuting the suspected pirates? What about setting up an international fund from shipping sources to allow for witnesses to incidents to travel to whatever locale where a case was being held?

Trust me, it would be a heck of lot less than the ransoms being doled out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Apologies for not having read your book, but I want to give a slightly different take on the economics of piracy.

The teenagers who actually board the ships do not have any alternatives, as far as they can tell. If you watched the first Star Wars movie, they are the rebels, in their mind, fighting against the Darth Vaders of international commerce. Most pirate attacks originate from Puntland, believe it or not, which actually has a government that functions to some extent. President Farole of Puntland has asked the international community for $8 Million to fund law & order efforts, and was ignored. Instead, the CIA is spending about $200 - 250 Million a year in Puntland, using proxy militias (like the PIS) to fight against the Islamists. Trouble is, the Islamists they are fighting ARE THE FUNCTIONING GOVERNMENT, moderates who would like to work WITH us to achieve mutual goals.

To fight this kind of economic crime, there needs to be a police authority on the ground, conducting interviews, holding suspects, tracing back to the wealthy Somalis abroad who are funding the boats, guns and GPS units. Unless we are going to "liberate" all of Somalia the way we "liberated" Iraq, only President Farole is up to the task.


The US Navy is spending about $125 Million per month to patrol the Gulf of Aden. Fer Pete's sake, they are using advanced fighter jets, costing $8K per hour to fly, to look for skinny boys in rowboats carrying slingshots.
Add in what EU and China and all are spending on "maritime security" and it's over $300 Million a month.
Why ?
Have they put even a little dent in the piracy ? No.
This is just as you hint, a way to justify having 11 nuclear supercarriers. If this is the best they can do to justify these platforms, I am not convinced we need them.
The Navy is struggling to stay relevant to national security. In a time when they should be putting security guards aboard merchant vessels, the CNO is insistent that the complex systems needed to justify lots of admirals, built for the threats of 1989, are exactly what we need today for a totally different threat picture.