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April 15, 2009

Blogging Heads: Pirate edition

Military historian Robert Farley and foreign policy wonk Dan Drezner discuss the options for dealing with piracy. The general consensus is that there's not that much more the world community can do to police vast oceans against stateless pirates.

Destroying pirate infrastructure on land is out. There's not that much of it and it's not all that valuable. As Farley says, most pirate lairs are just "lairs of convenience" located in ordinary port cities. If you destroy the port, the pirates will relocate to another spot along the coastline and the local people will be deprived of their ports and their livelihoods.

International patrols are ongoing, but they are of limited value in preventing attacks because the ocean is vast and the pirates act very quickly. Farley says that a speedboat full of pirates can overrun a ship in less than half an hour. Typically, it's all over before a navy ship can react, Farley explains. Pirates don't always hold ships for ransom. Sometimes they just steal the cargo.

It's not legally feasible for many vessels to arm their crews because many countries including the United States balk at letting packs of armed foreign nationals into their ports. The U.S. Coast Guard is justifiably concerned that armed sailors could be a terrorism risk in the U.S..

Most ship owners don't want guns on their vessels. For one thing, they don't want to run the risk that people confined in close quarters for months at a time will turn on each other, or their officers.

There are also liability and safety concerns associated with arming people with no combat training.

Kennebec Captain writes:

Does it make sense to spend time and money training merchant crews in the use of lethal force? The reluctance to arm crews is not because of any squeamishness or some kind of misguided political correctness but practicality. I get ABs from time to time that can not be taught to steer. At safety meetings we still are trying to get the concept of wearing eye protection when using power tools across to the crew, with limited success. Where is the time to train and supervise crew armed with automatic weapons going to come from?

Piracy has been a problem off the Horn of Africa for years, but thanks in large part to the no arms rule, very few people have been killed.

Ship owners are also concerned about the well-being of their crews. Is it fair to expect merchant mariners to use lethal force to protect company property? That's not what they signed up for. On land, a boss would be considered insane or criminal for demanding that civilian employees fight off armed robbers.

Ultimately, ship owners are businesspeople. If it's less expensive to buy pirate insurance than to arm, train, and insure their people to carry guns, the owners are going to keep paying ransoms. We couldn't stop them from doing so, even if we wanted to. Piracy isn't new and neither is the idea of arming merchant ships, but there are good reasons why this trend hasn't taken off.

Hiring trained security guards might mitigate some of the liability and safety concerns, but it's expensive to hire enough security to fight off a pirate attack. The chances of any given ship being attacked are low low and the costs of having a meaningful private security contingent on every voyage would add up quickly.

There are plenty of measures that merchant ships already take to prevent pirate attacks. Even simple precautions like installing adequate lighting and posting a 24-hour watch can make a big difference. The crew of the Maersk Alabama successfully repelled pirates from their ship without guns, thanks to tactics they learned through their union. Various sub-lethal weapons are also used to deter pirates including fire hoses, piercing sirens, and tasers.

Farley thinks that helping Somalia become a functional state again might reduce piracy in the long run.


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LB said, "Eurosabra, that's one of the dumber ideas I've heard all day, and believe me there has been stiff competition."

Like the late Richard J. Daley, I resent those insinuendoes!

"Trying to kill pirates is like trying to kill insurgents. It's not like there's a fixed number of them. If you get rid of one set, more will spring up. The incentives are just too great..."

I don't understand why pirates, who are motivated by greed, are aptly compared to insurgents, who are commonly motivated by zeal, ideology, patriotism, etc. Killing the pirates prevents them from taking their prizes -- isn't that (pardon the expression) disincentivation?

If the argument is really about feasibility, and not some intractable sympathy for thugs who are to be excused from any nasty consequences of their thuggery because they are pathetic brutalized poor people of color from a once-colonized country, an exclusion zone is feasible.

"The oceans are vast relative to ships' ability to intervene."

WaPo cites a U.S. Central Command estimate of "400,000 square miles of ocean to patrol against piracy" -- but an exclusion zone would be smaller. And note Squashed's suggestion of convoys. Merchant vessels
headed SE into the Gulf of Aden, for example, could queue up north of the Strait of Bab El Mandeb (I had to look it up) and then transit the exclusion zone escorted by a warship. Then a pirate attack would be suicidal -- and since, again, they are out for gain and not to die, the piracy would stop. There's no need for it to continue, is there?

If the point that correlation isn't causation counts only against attributing the growth of the problem to rewarding the pirates, but not against attributing it to "the deteriorating security situation", consider that an ever more lucrative growth industry of brigandage, extortion, hijacking and hostage-taking can only undermine restoring or establishing the rule of law. Killing pirates and starving piracy are necessary conditions if Somalia is ever to stand up. The Somalis can't stop them at home, so blue-water navies must destroy them on the high seas.

>Until they do, the US/EU/China have a right and duty to kill destroy the pirates without mercy.

They're kidnappers, but they have a pretty good record of not harming captives and treat them well. They currently hold about 300, so they've probably taken north of 1000 over time. But they've only killed one, which they seem to consider an accident (there's also the french sailboat captain, but he may have been accidentally shot by his rescuers).

So they're thugs sure, but as thugs go, honourable and minimally violent. I don't know about your city, but the police here kill a fair number of people a year under questionable circumstances. The first step in forming a state is getting a monopoly on violence, and enforcing it with predictable rules with minimal collateral damage. Pirates or not, not too bad so far.

So instead of escalating, maybe a deal where we pledge to help protect their fishing grounds from dumping and theft, in exchange for ceasing piracy and aid for any nascent government. Publicise it as a standing offer, and if they turn it down it at least damages their heroic rebel status at home.

But the pirates are not interested in forming a state. Somalia was close to forming a state in 2006, but because the state would have Islamist elements, the US backed an Ethiopian invasion that set the country back 15 years. The country did form a government, but said government has no real control over its territory.

Not so much a whole state, as figure out a way to co-opt them as a semi-legit regional coast guard. As in: ok, you consider yourselves a coast guard. We'll help you with that, and give aid to your region's nascent government. Or we start killing a lot of pirates, your call.

For thugs they seem very sensitive to deaths, of their own or of captives, weirdly genteel. In a country as broken as Somalia, it's probably best to co-opt the relatively peaceful warlords, not radicalize them. Heck, they supposedly set up restaurants for the captives. It's practically a twisted semi-violent sort of tourist industry. Given that most of the world thinks its funny so far, it's not a total stretch to think ten years from now they could play off that.

But there was a government able to crack down on them, back in 2006. It was just too Islamist for US taste, so it was destroyed.

There's a false dichotomy here between all-out war on pirates and doing nothing. We're already doing plenty to fight piracy. Nobody's saying we should stop the UN patrols. There's a question of when we hit a point of diminishing returns.

The idea that the world should somehow come up with 100 extra warships to patrol the area indefinitely is absurd. There were only 144 hijackings last year to begin with. How many of those could have been prevented by hardening cargo ships against attacks and organizing convoys?

As Robert Farley notes in the vlog, these ships aren't really effective against pirates even in territories they nominally control. He describes pirates boarding ships within sight of the warship.

If you're serious about helping the Somalis to create a viable state, don't launch a massive pirate eradication campaign. It's not going to go over well. Yes, we do have to care what they think. If a foreign country was killing Americans off our coasts, how receptive would we be to cooperating with them on anything? Every time we kill one of these guys, it's a propaganda coup for radical Islamists who are only too happy to tell people that it's an act of imperialist heathen vengeance by the great satan.

It's a mistake to think that the pirates are simply greedy. There are complex religious and nationalist agendas playing out here, too. If the public sees the pirates as protecting national sovereignty, foreigners killing pirates is only going to reinforce that perception.

Americans are crazily irrational. One American vessel gets hijacked and suddenly the whole country is convinced that it's worth dropping everything to fight the shiny new Global War on Pirates.

Even if we assume the pirates are motivated purely by greed, it doesn't follow that we can kill our way out of this problem. Look what's happening in the Mexican-American drug war. That's as close to a purely mercenary criminal enterprise as you're going to find. Eliminate one drug trafficking organization and another one springs up to take its place. It's obvious that we can't win the WOD by attrition. We've been trying for 80 years and we're only losing ground.

When you add ideology and local power politics into the mix, like you have with the pirates, you get a situation that's even closer to trying to kill your way out of an insurgency.

Interesting blog entry... (describe major political landscape in somalia. I don't if it is true, but could be something.) The more I read about Somalia, the more interesting it gets. Obviously this is a collapsing ex colony, that Condi thinks the islamic government that was forming afterward was a bad idea and decide to use ethiopian force to smash it. But the UN backed transition government isn't maing any headway. (see second article)

In the present article, I will make my position clearer. I will start with the minor points, namely inactivity, lack of political volition, absence from the major fronts or issues that concern the Somali Nation.

Somali Piracy. The case of MV MEARSK ALABAMA is not a simple and customary piracy affair; with Hillary Clinton speaking of ´scourge´ and with the US navy present off the Somali coast, a responsible, real, and existent president of Somalia would certainly have something to say. But Sheikh Sharif is silent; his country risks becoming the target of a US attack (that may spare him – that´s true!) and the TFG puppet president has nothing to say. Not a single press release that would cost nothing.

Somaliland. In Somalia´s most problematic part, the Upper House (Guurti) gets bribed by the dictator Rayaale and agrees to illegally postpone the date of the otherwise illegitimate elections, the local opposition leaders denounce the provocative move that had been sponsored by the European Union, but still Sheikh Sharif has nothing to say. This automatically means that the TFG president has tacitly accepted not to exert authority in that part of Somalia; but this automatically means that he is not the President of Somalia.

Puntland. The newly elected president of the breakaway state announced that the termination of the piracy phenomenon would be his top concern. However, over the past few weeks, Puntland´s territory became again the epicenter of the piracy phenomenon which has been revitalized, but still Sheikh Sharif has nothing to say, and finds no reason to launch a reunification debate with the administrations at Garowe and Galkayo.

Ogaden. Battles are raging throughout Occupied Ogaden, Somalia´s western territories that have been illegally and colonially transferred to the Abyssinian tyranny by the departing English colonials in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. The leading Human Rights NGO Human Rights Watch published last year a lengthy and devastating Report that bears witness to unprecedented practices of genocide carried out by the tyrannical, racist, tribal regime of Abyssinia against the Somalis of Ogaden. The TFG president has nothing to say! And in striking difference with what a real President of Somalia said and did - before just 32 years. This says it all! Siad Barre undertook a great military expedition against the cruel tyranny of Abyssinia in order to liberate Occupied Ogaden. In doing so, he dared to oppose almost the entire world, getting no help from anyone. Contrarily to the President of Somalia, the president of TFG travels to the fake capital of the criminal colonial fossil Abyssinia, because he was ordered to do so by his boss, the French Freemason, Mauritanian diplomat Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, who carries out the most evil anti-Somali colonial plans of England and France.

second article.

just I suspect. Somalia is basically, failed regime change from Clinton era, than again Bush era. Barre was major US client regime, and supply nice oil contract.

PS. read somalia current civil war news at wiki. It's fascinating. Everything becomes so clear.

UN Security Council Resolution 794 was unanimously passed on December 3, 1992, which approved a coalition of United Nations peacekeepers led by the United States to form UNITAF, tasked with ensuring humanitarian aid being distributed and peace being established in Somalia. The UN humanitarian troops landed in 1993 and started a two-year effort (primarily in the south) to alleviate famine conditions.

Critics of US involvement pointed out that "just before pro-U.S. President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, nearly two-thirds of the country's territory had been granted as oil concessions to Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips. Conoco even lent its Mogadishu corporate compound to the U.S. embassy a few days before the Marines landed, with the first Bush administration's special envoy using it as his temporary headquarters."[3][4][5] The cynical assertion was that, rather than a purely humanitarian gesture, the US was stepping in to gain control of oil concessions. Somalia has no proven reserves of oil, but there are considered to be possible reserves off Puntland. Even today, oil exploration remains a controversy. The Transitional Federal Government has warned investors to not make deals until stability is once again brought to the country.[6]

Squashed, a later part of the article you quote says,

In a interview accorded to Asharq Al-Awsat, the UK-based international Arabic newspaper that represents the best efforts of English Freemasonic infiltration among, and manipulation of, the Muslims at a global level...

Why the hell do you take him seriously?

The "1.1 million miles to patrol" is a misleading statistic. Gulf of Aden, which is smaller and leaves less room to maneuver, eyeballs to 500km x 1000km -- that 200,000 square miles, not 1.1 million.

The Indian Ocean is much larger, but it leaves much more room to sail far from Somalia. Staying away from Somalia increases travel costs to pirates, ought to decrease the density of non-pirate small boats, and increases the time during which assumed-pirates can be spotted in transit. There's no particular reason to only use one strategy.

The absolute number of miles is just a proxy for the real question: how many warships we'd need to achieve our stated objective. If the Economist's naval expert is right, we'd need to increase the number of warships in the region by a factor of seven.

If that's the course you favor, convince us why we should invest such massive resources to eliminate some fraction of the 144 non-lethal ship hijackings a year.

Keep in mind that this is a massive subsidy to international shipping corporations at taxpayer expense. The US only has about 600 merchant vessels, total, according to the CIA world fact book--and presumably not all of them go anywhere near the Gulf of Aden. Last week's incident is the first time pirates have seized a US merchant vessel in 200 years. This is not evidence of a crisis that merits a reordering of our national security priorities. A single anomalous event is not necessarily evidence of a systematic deficiency.

Your solution is like using a bazooka to kill a mosquito before you've even tried mass distribution of mosquito netting.

In a interview accorded to Asharq Al-Awsat, the UK-based international Arabic newspaper that represents the best efforts of English Freemasonic infiltration among, and manipulation of, the Muslims at a global level...

Why the hell do you take him seriously?

Posted by: Alon Levy | April 17, 2009 at 02:37 AM "

I don't know. Obviously he is not a reporter and he is a bit of a kook. But like listening to anybody from a crazy place, some weird theory is to be expected. but his rant seems to explain a lot of thing when it comes to actual people and event on the ground. (weakness of installed government, puntland/somaliland, etc).

He could be an absolute random kook online. But then what's so different about all the rest of TV report. (none is reporting or know anything in Somalia) But if he knows somalia, then I might consider his opinion. (think of it like the latest teabagging hoorah. If you listen to them, they are nothing but bunch of kooks. They hardly know anything about maoism, fascism, nazi, etc. obviously, the protest is not about those words. But they are there, and you try to piece together actual group thinking that drives and sustain the event. What lies under the crazy rants.)

I can't decide yet what rhetoric and ideology drive the current civil war. what sustain the war. Is it clan, religious, proto nationalism, etc. Maybe I should dig youtube and see if I can find clip of speeches. What makes somalia difficult is the lack of technology, hence the absolute unknown about the other side of civil war. What they are saying, how they think, etc. All are speculation and wishful thinking by media or coalition supported by US.

Being compared to the people who run the tea parties is one of the most damning things that can be said about any pundit.

If you ask Paul Collier, civil wars are not sustained by ideology, but by greed. Rebel leaders may have some ideological motivations, he explains, but the people who join them don't always share the same views, so civil wars may erupt regardless of the presence of any ideologies or grievances, like religious strife, ethnic oppression, etc. From this perspective, the best antidote or cure is to have a stable central government that can reduce extreme poverty and grow the economy.

I wouldn't use warships in the Indian Ocean proper. "There's no particular reason to use just one strategy". If the small boat density is low and there is room to run, you don't need to blow them up, you just need to see them and sail away soon enough that they cannot catch you. More surveillance -- either using P-3s, or blimps, or robot airplanes. Whatever is cheapest. There's limits to how much fuel those little boats carry, there's limits to how long they can chase a big ship, both in fuel costs and in shit-happens-if-you-go-fast-in-the-ocean costs.

And in the harsh-treatment-of-pirates department, the longer you force the pirates to act like pirates (motoring as fast as possible after a fleeing ship) the more confidence you have that they are pirates, and the more time to (say) attack them.

I think that the costs/benefits of this are also focussing too narrowly on the shipping companies. Large infusions of pirate money into a failed state sounds like a bad idea -- that might lead to other more costly problems in the future. And, it seems to me that we're supposed to be getting some practice at this asymmetrical warfare thing -- so why not get a little practice at spotting itty-bitty boats in a big ocean? Might as well practice on the pirates, when it's a good thing to stop them, but not a dire necessity. And if all our current methods are damn expensive, maybe we need to develop new methods (I would try autonomous kite-powered boats -- we built unguided ones when I was a kid, the electronics have improved just a wee bit since then. The kite has altitude, which gives you visual and radio range, but otherwise it is cheap and stupid.)

The cheapest solution is to pay tribute to the pirates, by about two orders of magnitude. Protection money, in other words. It is also outrageous to authoritarian right-wing thinkers, which makes it more attractive. :-)

My other comment concerns arctic sea ice. As the arctic becomes free of ice in summer due to global warming, much shipping traffic can be diverted over the pole. This avoids Somalia. Yokohama to Rotterdam is about 5600 mi over the pole. It's 11,200 past Somalia through the Suez canal.

John: paying ransom is the cheapest solution in the next month. In the next two years, it may not be. The frequency of pirate attacks has increased markedly over the last 12 months, presumably due to the fact that they until recently always get paid and never got killed or captured. And if the Somali civil war blows up, the costs to the global economy will be huge.

Using the Northwest Passage is a bad idea, since it makes shipping companies interested in not solving the global warming problem further down the line. If possible, an international ban on using the passage for anything but research would be the better idea.

Yes, the pirate problem could get worse, which is an argument for keeping up our current enforcement efforts and studying how to improve them. It's not an argument for an all-out preemptive assault.

Again, this false dichotomy between doing nothing and locking down the entire Gulf of Aden and beyond.

The world community is already doing something, and it's working pretty well. If we're going to do more, why should we assume that 100 new warships are the best solution. We already know that even nearby ships don't reliably deter pirate attacks because they happen so fast.

There seem to be a lot of cheap, defensive solutions that haven't been fully implemented--the equivalent of fortifying the cabin doors on airplanes. For example, the bridge on the Maersk Alabama was unsecured.

The US could start my making American shipping companies responsible for fortifying their own vessels to the highest standards and pressure other countries to impose similar regulations. If owners expect the taxpayer to bail them out when they get into trouble, they should at least satisfy us that they've done everything they can to secure their own vessels.

One of the best long-term solutions proposed so far is to work with the Somalis to establish a real Coast Guard to protect their natural resources from overfishing and dumping. But such a partnership requires a lot of trust. If you implement any scheme that involves killing a lot of pirates, you're going to alienate ordinary Somalis and radicalize the pirates.

Right now, there's not a lot of lethal violence on the high seas. The pirates don't kill their captives. If we screw this up, we're not going to be able to go back to this weirdly functional detente. Attacks will spark counterattacks. The overall level of violence will go up.

Escalating could easily put the lives of merchant sailors in much greater danger than they are now. That's something to think about, seeing as this exercise is nominally for their benefit.

I don't see what's working so well when the number of pirate attacks is trending up.

The cheap defensive solutions can help reduce the number of pirate attacks, and they may be enough. But even then, it doesn't rule out a French-style policy of storming pirates who do kidnap people. All three response tracks - defensive solutions for ships, rescuing hostages instead of paying ransom, and helping Somalia develop into a sovereign government - have their strengths and are not mutually exclusive.

You've got to look at absolute numbers as well as trends. The piracy problem has been going on in Somalia since 1991 and numbers are down from historic highs. When you've got a low base rate, small fluctuations can look really dramatic. It's telling that this is the first time the US has had vessel captured by pirates in 200 years.

Don't assume just because pirates suddenly dominate the news cycle for a week that there's some sort of immediate piracy crisis that requires us to take instant and dramatic action.

It's not just this story. Nicholas Kristof reported about it a few weeks ago, blaming the US toppling of the Somali government in 2006 for the recent spike in pirate attacks.

If you ask Paul Collier, civil wars are not sustained by ideology, but by greed. Rebel leaders may have some ideological motivations, he explains, but the people who join them don't always share the same views, so civil wars may erupt regardless of the presence of any ideologies or grievances, like religious strife, ethnic oppression, etc. From this perspective, the best antidote or cure is to have a stable central government that can reduce extreme poverty and grow the economy.

Posted by: Alon Levy | April 17, 2009 at 11:20 AM

Well, even pure greed, still need to be manifested in some sort of political speech/public urging to fight right? And that sort of speech must involve rational reasons for listener to want to participate.

eg. this 2008 somalia interview. (pretty standard guerilla stuff.)

oh man, we are knee deep in somalia chaos. (btw, the wiki articles are highly recommended, tho they are scattered in several pages)

Basically, this has been going on since the 70's, Even the famine of the 80's was really a war between Ethiopia and Somalia. And here we are again, making Ethipia going to war against Somalia. (Ethiopia government is a bit shaky at the moment. click google news. Little protests start to emerge and they ave budget problem)

The Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) (Somali: Isbaheysiga Ladagaalanka Argagaxisadda) was a Somali alliance created by various warlords and businesspeople. The alliance included Botan Ise Alin, Mohammed Dheere,[1] Mohamed Qanyare, Musa Sudi Yalahow, Nuur Daqle, Abdi Hasan Awale Qeybdiid, Omar Muhamoud Finnish and others. Some of them were ministers in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia.

The International Crisis Group, which had direct contacts with the warlords, said in June 2006 that the CIA was funnelling $100,000 to $150,000 a month to the ARPCT.[2]

By 1978 Barre had provoked the Ogaden War with Ethiopia, which mired the region in a conflict that was a direct contributor to the famine there that achieved international publicity in the mid-1980s. Though the war began at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and though the Soviets and the Cubans intervened heavily on the side of Ethiopia, the U.S. refused to help Barre’s radical left-wing regime.

One direct result of this was the weakening of the Somali government and the strengthening of opportunistic anti-government groups funded by Ethiopia.

In 1991 the Somali civil war claimed the government of Siad Barre when he was deposed by a coalition of ethnic militias and resistance groups. A new government was named, but the factions that ousted Barre refused to make peace. Outside efforts by the U.N. proved ineffective, and the spectacular failure of Operation Restore Hope despite the end of the famine foretold a further two decades of internecine warfare.

By 2009 the institutions of central government had long gone. Attempts were made to seat a Transition Federal Government beginning in 2004, but it could only meet safely in Nairobi in neighboring Kenya or Baidoa in South Somalia and has thus had little effect on domestic stability.

It is recognized internationally but retains almost no influence over Somali affairs even though it claims to administer about half the country. Real power lies with leaders of militias who govern autonomous ethnic enclaves, like Puntland or the Juba Valley Alliance, and with inter-regional associations like the Islamic Courts Union.

see this wiki page. (Ethiopia lost a lot of men. Some 5000, or about 2% of their active force. The minute Bush is gone, they bailed out of Somalia.)

Well, even pure greed, still need to be manifested in some sort of political speech/public urging to fight right? And that sort of speech must involve rational reasons for listener to want to participate.

Well, yeah, but the point is that it doesn't matter what the rational reasons are. If the concerns of one rebel leader are addressed to his satisfaction, which already rarely happens, then the fighters will just move to another rebel leader who is still dissatisfied. Sometimes the proper response is to crush the rebels militarily; in many cases, e.g. Sierra Leone, the rebels are poorly organized, and dissipate when facing a force of even a few hundred well-trained troops. This depends on Somalia's particular situation, though - resistance to foreign occupation does depend on political factors, even if local civil war doesn't. Let's just say that anyone who suggests Ethiopia invade again needs a brain transplant.

my impression,

It's proto nationalism mix with Islam. From the few youtube clips containing interview or translation. Maybe the real motivation is simply greed and clan faction, but the speeches are basic guerilla stuff (we the people, have some serious problem with such and such, we are kicking some asses and taking name, may God be with us... bla bla. pretty generic. very 60's stuff.)


yeah that ethiopia invasion by Bush was very stupid. The somalian will eventually clash with ethiopian in serious way in the future. *wikipedia says, they had 4 major clashes before already.)

but, whatever it is, Somalia is screwed. They are going to be in mess for at least another 2 decades until a strong enough leader emerges.

It goes way back than the 1960s. The mixture of modern nationalism and some traditional values appeared in pretty much every anti-colonial movement, as well as every bunch of corrupt power grabbers looking for justification.

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