Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden

Pirates in the Gulf of Aden

The stirring actions of the US Navy in reaction to the kidnapping of an American skipper off Somalia have brought the whole question of Somali piracy back into the headlines.  My first reaction when I heard that pirates had attacked a Maersk ship with an American skipper was that they had bitten off more than they could chew and that retribution would be swift.

However, three shots from a sniper rifle do not and will not solve the piracy issue.  For all the size of the US surface fleet, there are simply not enough ships in the world to police the Gulf of Aden and the Western Indian Ocean.  Another idea that has been floated has been the use of Q ships – heavily armed but disguised merchant vessels that effectively act as lures.  Less elaborate is simply that merchant vessels should carry armed personnel.  All these ideas rely on the belief that the best way to defeat the pirates is at sea – as Jonah Goldberg says if more pirates were shot, there would be fewer pirates.

Sadly they all ignore the reasons behind the piracy.  This is not a cultural relativist ‘it’s their culture, and it’s equally valid’ point, it’s a practical point.  Somalia is not so much a failed state as a destroyed state.  Moreover, as Ben Macintyre points out, the culture of piracy – of shiftinnet – has held sway in Somalia for hundreds of years.  The extension onto the water is inevitable, once you consider the wealth of the shipping passing within a few hundred yards of the shore.  Piracy in Somalia made $150 million last year alone, probably the biggest industry in Somalia, especially since the Islamist driven decline in the qat trade.  The pirates are the big players in town.  They pay the wages of the police, and they earn more than the politicians.

Macintyre’s solution is probably right, albeit depressing.  Until law and order is established in Somalia, along with economic prosperity, there is little prospect of stopping the shifta, whether on land or sea.  For an idea of what a depressing answer that is, read this:  That cannot be done with guns alone, and will never be achieved until and unless Somalia can finally rid itself of the culture of the gun.  Now ponder on how realistic that is in our lifetime.

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