Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Intermission: Piracy in Somalia

Once in a while, I want to branch out to different areas in the world. I had made a post about Japan a few weeks ago and now want to tackle the problem with piracy in Somalia.

It is very easy to clean up piracy. Just destroy the pirates bases of operation (e.g. ports, ships, etc). It will take a while for them to rebuild, and in the meantime, a constant patrolling of the areas will quickly eliminate any remnants of pirates.

There are several problems with this approach. First, it is costly in in materials, human lives, and most likely politically disastrous.

I think the U.S. can bombard the entire area pretty nicely and I won't doubt that the marines may be able to clean the whole place without major casualties. "Blackhawk down" was an aberration in an otherwise a good track record of the U.S. Marines. But then you have piles of dead bodies - both dead pirates and dead hostages. At the time of this writing, there are around 587 hostages, and while killing hostages is bad for business in general, the pirates will not hesitate to kill them when the U.S. Marines start destroying their bases of operation. It is politically dicey to launch a clean-up operation that will end up with many of the hostages dead. Not to mention the collateral damage. Thomas Jefferson did not need to worry about that when he authorized the clean-up of the Barbary Pirates. However, with the 24/7 news broadcasting all over the world, soon you will have human rights organizations up in arms.

Additionally, with the US already busy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, any operation in Somalia will be hard to pull off. True, the U.S. might be able to cobble together a coalition of fed-up nations willing to tackle the problem. India, for instance, seems to be very interested in this issue, as the pirates have been busy in India's backyard. China may be on board in this case, as the threat of piracy also has an impact on its global trade, especially on its trade with African states.

The Europeans, the Arabs, and Somalia's African neighbors, on the other hand, might be skittish. They realize that the Somalian elders and the organized pirates have an incentive to limit the excesses. For too much excesses (e.g. agitated youths who love to showoff their prowess by killing people), is bad for the pirates' business.

By cleaning up the hornet's nest, we might end up with many small unorganized criminal groups.Worse, they may immigrate to either surrounding countries or to Europe, adding to the immigration problems that already plague the European continent. In fact, the European powers usually let the pirates go because they are afraid that those pirates might ask for asylum, and under the European liberal immigration law, such requests are difficult to deny.

Worse, the now former pirates could turn to extremism and radicalization, in response to what they see as injustices committed against them. They first saw other nations overfish and then dump all kinds of trash into their waters; now other countries are destroying their only means of income. As a result, they might join with the al-Shabaab, a local extremist group with a link to al-Qaeda, causing further problems. At least the pirates at this point dislike al-Shabaab, as the al-Shabaab are bad for business. Extremism and criminal activities do not mix well, as criminals prefer to keep fleecing people while minimizing attention from the authorities, while the extremists rob AND fight the authorities.

There are many solutions to this piracy problem. One of the best solution is to prop up the Somalian government, making them more effective and capable of dealing with problems on its turf. The problem is that nation-building is very costly. The U.S. does not want the responsibility, having been burned in both Afghanistan and Iraq. With the Tea Party demanding more cuts in the budget and at the same time, the leftists refuse any foreign adventures, the chances of the U.S. taking care of the Somalia problem is highly unlikely. The Europeans are busy with their deadbeats already (e.g. Greece and Portugal) and they are not interested anyway, and the Arab autocrats just don't give a damn.

Thus the world just chooses to "do nothing" in dealing with piracy in Somalia. It is a very simple problem, but the aftertaste is just so bad that few rational governments are willing to solve it.

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