Catch-22 in Somalia

Mission successful for the US Navy - but what happens next?
Crewmen from the Maersk Alabama celebrate after hearing of the release of their captain from Somalian pirates. Courtesy of AFP/Getty.
Crewmen from the Maersk Alabama celebrate after hearing of the release of their captain from Somalian pirates. Courtesy of AFP/Getty.


Yesterday's successful conclusion to the five-day hostage crisis that had played itself out in the seas off the Somalian pirate port of Haradheere is testament to the patience and professionalism of the US Navy.

Against a backdrop of media coverage that at times seemed to delight in the spectre of an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer being 'frustrated' by four pirates in a 28-foot lifeboat, the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips is being portrayed as a classic example of all-American heroism. Somewhere in Hollywood, the screenplays are already being drafted.

Of course, the patience displayed by the USS Bainbridge showed that the US is prepared to go to any lengths to protect its citizens, and also serves as a message to hijackers that attacks on American interests are unlikely to go unpunished.

But Somalia still has the longest shoreline in Africa, and piracy will still continue no matter how many warships are sent to the area. It is hard for most of us to understand what living in a failed state is like; the one truth is that the risk versus rewards ratio for pirates - who have no other source of income - is still way too high.

The major question is: how does US policy with regard to the piracy threat continue now?

It's no secret that the issue about what to do with Somalia has creased foreheads at several US administrations. The disastrous 'Black Hawk Down' intervention in Mogadishu in 1994 resulted in a hiatus of American activity in the failed state. The superpower was then accused of collusion in the Ethiopia-backed invasion of Somalia at the beginning of 2007 and even openly attacked Islamist bases in the south of the country using AC-130 gunships.

But it seems unlikely that the piracy threat will be destroyed by missile strikes at source, even if the US were to decide to go for the unilateral option. Cruise missile strikes against population centres of any size result in significant civilian ill will and it is almost impossible to guarantee success for such missions.

Another possibility might be a larger international fleet, patrolling at regular points along a pre-defined 'safe passage' for shipping that follows close to the southern coastline of the Arabian peninsula. But this option won't actually stop piracy attempts, and the size of the sea area in question is such to render this plan almost inoperable without a massive injection of both manpower and cash, resources that most countries are ill able to afford right now.  

That leaves the only other option; a change for the good in the political climate of Somalia, and that's a change that, with the best will in the world, will take a long time to come about.

So it's round one to the superpower, and congratulations to the US Navy and Captain Richard Phillips; they deserve it. But finding the solution to the seemingly impossible conundrum into which the US has been dragged starts now.     

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