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The Self Shelf: Preventing piracy through a projection of power

Published: March 4, 2011
Section: Opinions


A little more than a week ago, four American citizens were executed by Somalian pirates in the midst of negotiations for their release. The navy immediately swooped in and captured the pirates, killing two of them. Yet another ship was hijacked mere days later. This is the latest epoch in what has become the second coming of the golden age of piracy. In 2010 alone, 53 ships were hijacked by pirates and more than a thousand sailors were taken hostage. Even as I write this article, there are hundreds of hapless sailors being held for ransom as their countries try to maneuver their release along with their cargo.

The odd thing about the piracy phenomenon is that it has been getting steadily worse for the past five years without a large international response. Attacks span from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea. Naturally, this area is one of the largest shipping areas in the world–more than 30,000 ships pass through these straits every year. And every year since 2006, the attacks have increased in number. This year has been the worst yet with 12 attacks so far. The world has not stood completely silent but their efforts have been futile. In 2008, the United Nations passed a measure allowing warships to violate Somali territorial sovereignty to pursue pirates. There have been sporadic attempts by the United States and other countries to police the waters. Obviously, considering the increase in piracy, these measures have not had the intended effect. Now there are four citizens dead and we have little to show for it in terms of stopping the endemic problem. Killing and capturing the pirates in that one ship was the equivalent of killing a single operative of Al Qaeda–it is treating the symptoms of the problem but not the cause.

The first and most obvious solution is to reform Somalia. The root cause for piracy in this area is the turmoil left over from Somalia’s second civil war which ended in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, this option (which we are currently trying to pursue through aid) will take at least a decade. Thus we have to employ more immediate means to stop piracy now.

This is why I think it’s high time the United States acted against the pirates on land. I’m not talking about a full-on invasion of Somalia but instead a covert strike on the pirate leaders. Admittedly, this would require putting troops on the ground but would not constitute an occupation of any sort. Basically, I’m advocating for a Special Forces attack on pirate strongholds on land to capture or kill pirate leaders. The navy has already mobilized against some of the mother ships but by the time these ships are found, it is often already too late. I realize that finding these pirate strongholds would be fairly difficult but I think the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. The advantages of such an attack would be threefold.

First there is the idea of deterrence. At the point where pirates aren’t safe on the seas or on land, there’s a larger reason for them to not turn to piracy in the first place. If we can instill the idea in the average Somalian that piracy is never a safe profession, we can help both ourselves and the world by making for fewer pirates. Furthermore, this would certainly deter pirates from attacking American ships in the future. For the average pirate, the decision to attack a ship is based on some sort of cost-benefit analysis. If the United States can show that attacking American shipping in particular will lead to a robust American response, it will make pirates think twice before attacking a ship flying the Stars and Stripes.

Secondly, by attacking the pirates, America would increase both foreign and domestic respect. To illustrate this point, I am going to use a metaphor. Imagine if a terrorist group detonated a small explosive device in the United States that killed four people. If the United States were not to retaliate against the perpetrators as a whole, it would certainly undermine the idea of American power abroad. America should not wait until another hijacking occurs to act decisively. America’s retaliation against the pirates would project power to the rest of the world in addition to increasing international respect for taking the initiative on the piracy problem. Importantly, it would also increase respect at home. The average citizen does not like the idea of pirates attacking and killing Americans without a strong response. While the navy did kill or capture the pirates involved in the attack, they did not capture the pirate leaders who ordered the raid nor did they prevent future attacks in any meaningful way. By scoring a victory against the pirate leadership, the United States can prove to its citizens that it will go out of its way to protect American interests, both at home and abroad.

Thirdly, there is a huge benefit even for Somalia insofar as a lessening of the piracy will lead to it moving away from its current position as an international pariah. When your country is a springboard for attacks on international shipping, it hurts your international image in devastating ways. The Somalian people are better than pirates and with more aid could reestablish a functioning civil society. Yet piracy deters giving more aid to the region as most countries merely write it off as a bastion for terrorism on the seas.

Furthermore, the lessening of this dangerous and illegal activity will force former would-be pirates to find a legitimate livelihood, something which will help the local economy much more than illegal cartels in addition to helping preserve the lives of would-be pirates who would otherwise have most likely died in combat. In the end, it boils down to the fact that a pirate-free Somalia is a better Somalia.

There is still a long way to go in terms of actually pulling Somalia out of the morass it is currently mired in but stopping piracy is definitely in line with doing so.

At the point where it is hugely beneficial to the interests of the United States, the world and the Somalian people (including the men who take up piracy by deterring them from such a lifestyle), I think a military strike is not only warranted but necessary to alleviate this plague of the seas.