Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Modern Day Piracy

Hampton Park Fan asked me to talk a bit about the Somali pirate story, and while it is covered much better elsewhere on the blogosphere, I will add a few comments of my own.

1. Maritime Piracy is a land-based problem at its heart. That is, the pirates are paid by folks operating on land, they take orders from folks operating on land and they are tied to land-based logistics. These guys aren't like the pirates of old, who'd find an island and stash their treasure; in fact, the pirates today have little interest in gaining wealth from the cargo. The money in piracy goes to the guys ashore who shake-down the shipping companies. The pirates don't see much of that, but what they do see is quite a bit more than they would make from lawful activities.

2. As a land-based problem, modern piracy exists where legitimate government does not. Off the horn of Africa, Somalia is the culprit. In Southeast Asia, parts of Malaysia and the Philippines are the culprits. Where legitimate government does not exercise authority, maritime banditry is allowed to flourish.

3. The single biggest problem in more aggressively tackling piracy, whether on our own or in concert with others is what to do with the pirates. Once you've taken them down and have them in custody, they are yours to keep Mr Ship Captain--as maritime nations are not stepping up to take responsibility for their turnover and trial.

Ok--so far I've made two broad points...the first is that to tackle piracy, we need to kill its roots ashore. Secondly, in the short term we need to figure out what to do with the pirates.

But there's more.....

4. Piracy is simply not that big of an issue....yet. I covered a piracy story on the blog once before, and I think there were something like 65 piracy events off the Horn of Africa last year--but there were nearly 22000 large ship voyages though those waters (numbers aren't exact, but they are close). This is not an epidemic. Shippers have to a large extent priced in this risk, and the ransoms paid are a chip-shot compared to the profits they pull in. But as we've seen in the financial crisis, facts are not always persuasive. If the markets begin to feel that that the flow of goods is threatened, it will begin to do zany things that no one will like.

5. This issue is a test case for modern cooperative maritime relationships. While Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen and Djibouti don't have big navies or coast guards, Germany, UK, Italy, Russia and the Saudis do. In fact, these nations and others are chomping at the bit to take this threat on, largely because it is exactly the kind of mission that their navies are good at. The US can do this all by itself--but shouldn't. It would require us to take our eye off of Iran (as our warships that would interdict pirates are the same one who would conduct land attack, anti-submarine warfare and anti-ship missile defense against Iran) a job ONLY we can really do. The problem with putting together an effective coalition revolves around two issues, with the first being what to do with the pirates (as we've discussed). The second involves an effective UN mandate, something most militaries in the world need in order to have a Friday afternoon parade.

6. No one should confuse this current issue with a lack of capability, resolve, or the desire of maritime nations to cooperate. This is a logistics issue. Get the UN to give a clear set of guidelines (I know, I know) including dispositional authority with respect to captured pirates, and there would be little left of the East African pirate story.

What should the US do?

7. Leave the actual anti-piracy (afloat) mission largely to others. We may need a ship or two as catalysts for action, but this is a bite sized job for bite-sized navies.

8. In conjunction with our friends in the USMC, we should begin to aggressively target the shorebased logistics and command/control of these operations. This sort of activity is very well-suited to what our Navy/Marine Corps team can do.

What is keeping us from doing this?

9. An effective UN mandate

10. The fact that our naval infantry (otherwise known as the Marines) is largely tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Anonymous said...

If it turned into a larger problem, couldn't the shippers hire the guys at Blackwater to provide security?

Anonymous said...

Follow me on this. Think about Chris Matthews, MSNBC and the kiddie porn/minor dating scheme. I have to think that there is some subset out there that instead of video cameras, a father/parent comes out with a shotgun/pistol, and the perv ends up in a deep freeze or the back 40...for eternity. So even if the pirates are land based...what if they never came home? What if they kept going out, and just did not return to shore? Piracy has a unique niche in international law, and maritime law. I think sea borne is the answer.

Beyond Bibb's Store said...

Apparently India's prepared to act without the UN's blessing. Bravo, baby.

Anonymous said...

India's not the only one...aside from the coalition forces working with CENTCOM, NATO, the Russians and Malaysians have all sent token forces as well. I didn't even know the Malays HAD a navy! :)

Countries are (slowly) taking this on as a problem, but let's be honest here. CW's point on odds is right on target. Is it really worth the expense from a purely financial perspective? Well, $100M in crude or a bunch of old Soviet tanks will make some people shift uncomfortably in their seats, but in the grand scheme, this isn't of significant impact. Yet.

CW, I don't think a UN Mandate would face too much competition in the UNSC...until negotiations reach the point of 1) who's responsible to act and 2) how to coordinate the interests of several parties already mentioned above but acting unilaterally. And, of course, one must "respect" the wishes of the TFG of Somalia, as ineffectual as it is. :P Messy.

Mudge said...

I would not be surprised to see AQ take a page from these Somali pirates' playbook and dust off their own original strategy of disrupting international commerce to drive up prices in every international strait (almost all of which are bordered by at least one country that is either sympathetic to, tolerant of or outright supportive of AQ's aims. You are probably okay writing off this relative handful of maritime extortionists in Somalia (although I heard several companies are already looking to surpass the quicker Red Sea/Suez Canal route in favor of several more days around South Africa), but if AQ turns this into an active and global strategy, I believe we will have a serious problem indeed. Wait until Lloyds of London jacks their insurance premiums through the roof and merchants must lose days of transit awaiting the next escorted convoy. The act of piracy, in and of itself, is not significant. Coordinated global piracy as part of an economic warfare strategy...especially in an already beleaguered economic environment... would be.

Anonymous said...

CW, I always knew you were a piracy expert. You should go on the radio!

Anonymous said...

Fun fact: despite the best literary efforts of Robert Louis Stevenson to make us believe otherwise, only one pirate in history has ever been known to bury his loot on an island, and it didn't happen the way you'd think. Captain Kidd, a privateer with an unfortunate knack for seizing vessels beyond the jurisdiction of his letter of marque, discovered he had been condemned of piracy and sailed to New England to clear his name. Before turning himself in, Kidd burried his treasure--not on a deserted island, but on one of the tiny specks of land off Long Island, New York. His hope was to use it as a last bargaining chip for his life in case he wasn't able to plead for clemency.

Upon hearing of this, Governor Bellomont reportedly chuckled, had Kidd tortured until he divulged the location of the cached treasure, put Kidd in irons and sent both him and his treasure to England, where the loot was used against him as evidence. He was hanged twice and suspended in an iron cage for ten years at the mouth of the Thames as a warning to would-be pirates.

Since burying loot quickly developed a horrible track record, no one else ever tried it. Everyone else pirated the old fashioned way: by selling their ill-gotten goods through merchants and mid-level officials of poor moral fiber but very deep pockets.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Love the pirate trivia thanks.

Anonymous said...

TLAM into Eyl

Dan said...

What's a horny pirate's worst nightmare?
A sunken chest with no booty.

Maybe this is why CW has refused to discuss piracy.

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