Somalia–the elephant in the room

There seems to be a universally accepted consensus that Somalis turned to piracy in retaliation to illegal dumping of nuclear waste and illegal fishing of Somali waters. What is less clear is how this apparent \”window of opportunity\” came about.

This from

One of the world\’s worst humanitarian disasters, Islamic terrorism and rampant human trafficking have all failed to draw the world\’s interest to Somalia. The return of piracy to the high seas, however, has. The Somali pirates have attacked more than 100 vessels in the waters leading to and from the Suez Canal this year, and earned tens of millions of dollars in ransom. Today they are holding 17 ships with around 300 crew members off the Somali coast. And at a weekend security conference organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain, headquarters to the U.S. Navy\’s 5th Fleet, opinion appeared unanimous: to fix the pirates, fix Somalia. \”We haven\’t been as involved in Somalia as we should have been,\” Britain\’s Defence Secretary John Hutton told the BBC. \”This is the consequence.\”

Somalia is a textbook example of the theory of failed states. The idea, as encapsulated by the butterfly that flaps its wings and ends up causing a hurricane on the other side of the world, is that an action in one place, even an apparently insignificant one, can have deep ramifications around the globe. (See TIME\’s Top 10 news stories of the year.)

Typically, when those actions take place in a failed or failing state — one with no law and little government — the consequences are negative. They include a refugee and disease exodus (such as from Zimbabwe), sex trafficking (Bangladesh and Nepal) and drug-smuggling and terrorism (Afghanistan and Tajikistan). Indonesia, which has a weak government and endemic poverty and also happens to abut another primary sea route, was the world\’s worst piracy hotspot for a decade, until a couple of years ago, when it was overtaken by Nigeria, which has little law but plenty of poverty and oil platforms.

Now Somalia has overtaken Nigeria as a piracy problem spot, as it claims the title of Ultimate Failed State. It is a haven for Islamic terrorists, currently poised to take Mogadishu and already expanding their operations to neighboring states (for example, killing more than 30 people with five car and suicide bombs at U.N. and foreign government buildings in the autonomous northern regions of Puntland and Somaliland); a departure point for hundreds of thousands of refugees (a refugee camp over the border in Kenya is now the biggest in the world); a center for human trafficking to the Middle East; and a hub of the illegal arms and drugs trade.

All these things are the consequences of non-existent government. All of them can only really be tackled properly when Somalia has a government that is both good and strong. As the French commander of his country\’s anti-piracy force in the Gulf, Vice-Admiral Gerard Valin, told Agence-France Presse in Bahrain: \”We will not end this phenomenon unless we have a Somali government that has the means to act on its territory to fight piracy.\”

That, unfortunately, is more remote than ever. As the vice-admiral was speaking, the Somali President, Abdullah Yusuf Ahmed, was firing his Prime Minister, Nur Hassan Hussein, the second premier to be dismissed in as many years. Not that the nominal government rules more than a few blocks of Mogadishu. Earlier this year, many of the other members of the Somali government and parliament gave up on their country and decamped to the Kenyan capital Nairobi. (See pictures of Somalia\’s pirates.)

Add to that the fact that the two last forces to offer anything approaching a stabilizing presence in Somalia — the Ethiopian army and a small African Union peacekeeping force — are expected to withdraw in the next few weeks. (In the case of the Ethiopians, who invaded in late 2006 to topple an Islamist government and who have been accused of atrocities during their stay, whether they have been a force for or against stabilization is hotly debated.)

That leaves the international community with two unappealing options. The short-term fix is to try to neutralize the pirates by pursuing them on land. Hence a U.S. draft proposal authorizing military action inside Somalia currently before the U.N. Security Council. But sending troops into Somalia is fraught with danger, as the American soldiers of Blackhawk Down, and now the Ethiopians, know to their cost. Present day U.S. operations against the Islamists — publicly confined to air strikes, but also including some clandestine fighting on the ground — have killed two significant leaders, including the bomb-maker in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

But, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have also killed civilians and stoked a raging anti-American backlash. In addition, extending the fight against the Islamists to the pirates may make friends of two of the most dangerous groups in Somalia, who until now have been enemies. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates underlined those concerns in Bahrain. \”With the level of information we have at the moment, we\’re not in a position to do that kind of land-based operation,\” he said, adding any such intervention would need to \”minimize collateral damage.\”

The long-term fix is to build a new Somalia. Nation-building is something the Bush administration initially shied away from in Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to regroup, and came round to in Iraq, with mixed and frequently bloody results. China provides a better model for nation-building in Africa, focusing almost wholly on the continent\’s commercial potential — and, as a byproduct, the stabilizing effects of poverty alleviation — by pumping billions into infrastructure in war-torn territories such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Angola is now stable, if horribly corrupt; Congo is still at war, but the Chinese investment there has just begun, and the country at least now has an incentive for peace. China, of course, gets a good return on its investment. Angola is now its leading oil supplier globally, while Congo is opening up its mineral riches in return for new roads, railways, hospitals and universities from Beijing. Then again, as the Somali pirates have demonstrated, it often takes an injection of self-interest for the world to want to act.

Some folks blithely blamed the US for supporting Ethiopia\’s invasion of Somalia, but failed to address the issue of WHY that invasion was necessary in the first place (to topple an Islamist regime that was providing a safe haven for terrorists). This same blogger held the US responsible for the Ethiopian military\’s actions as if the US somehow condoned them. As I said in my first post, such knee-jerk finger pointing at the US is (especially now that we have a new administration installed) ill-informed and short-sighted. And regardless of how or why Somalia became a \”failed state,\” the task the world now faces is what to DO with Somalia\’s pirates. From again:

Slice it any way you like, it is a challenge that resembles fighting terrorism. There are a lot of suggestions on the table: A system of World War II — style convoys and escorts. An international moratorium on ransom payments. Some urge arming crews, although assuming that shippers can outgun young men fitted out with the best the Somali black market has to offer is a risky bet. The best solution is likely to be military, based on inspections, exclusion zones, rapid reaction and deadly force. That is how our partners are beginning to view it. French commandos retook a yacht on April 10, killing two pirates. (One passenger was killed.) Last November, the Indian navy sank a pirate \”mother ship\” off Yemen. Favoring multilateralism over unilateralism often means favoring talk over action; maybe last week\’s operation is a sign that Obama is not so easily pigeonholed.

In some quarters, there is skepticism about whether a military response is appropriate. These aren\’t terrorists, one argument goes, because privation, not politics, is the root of the crisis. To listen to this woolly-headed analysis, you would think piracy was the closest thing Somalis had to a workable aid program. \”The threat of death,\” editorializes the Los Angeles Times, \”isn\’t much of a deterrent to hopeless young Somali men who face a choice between potentially making millions on the high seas or starving on shore.\”

There is an illogic here. If the incentives for piracy are economic, then a decreased likelihood of booty ought to curtail it. Yet no one seems to expect this to happen. Papers relay the boasts of pirates that they will exact \”revenge\” on Americans. How so? On whose behalf? Such solidarity is less typical of entrepreneurs than it is of terrorists and guerrillas. When Phillips\’ captors ran out of fuel, they radioed other pirate-held ships for help. There is talk of pirate dens on and near the Somali coasts: Harardhere, Eyl, Boosaaso. \”Den\” is a quaint, Peter Pan — ish way of putting it. \”Enemy naval base\” might be more apt.

Somalia is the most failed of failed states, but that doesn\’t make the pirates apolitical. They don\’t need a state. Piracy is their state. Trying to erect a livable society in Somalia would be to confront them with a rival, as we discovered once before. The pirates are not \”desperate.\” They are well fed, crafty and competent. They are the maritime wing of the warlord culture that governs Somalia de facto and does so in such a way that its citizens don\’t eat. Whatever the root causes of Somali piracy, helping Somalia might be a worthy goal once the pirates are defeated militarily. It is a pointless one until then.

Agreed. Trying to excuse the pirates behavior by saying \”its the illegal fishing\” or \”its because of illegal nuclear dumping\” fails to put the blame where it belongs, on the PIRATES themselves. As I said before, two wrongs never have and never will make one right.

~ by irishgrl on April 20, 2009.

2 Responses to “Somalia–the elephant in the room”

  1. Two wrongs never made a right, but without the volunteer coast guard forming to stop nuclear dumping, you can bet more Somalians would have died of radiation poisoning than how many innocent people the pirates have killed. All military actions have collateral damages — america kills tons of innocents (millions) in the period of time that we only lost about 5,000 people (Pearl Harbor + 911). So viewed as military, this is no different than any country excercising self-defense. The problem is that all armed forces, from the american police, to the CIA interrogators, to our military, have corrupt “bad cops” who do bad things. With a failed state, there’s no central authority to bring them in, try them, or imprison them. (Not that a central authority means bad elements necessarily meet justice. See also those running guantanimo, or the Nazis that got away with it and ran away to South America.) It’s not a simple “100% bad” or “100% good” situation.

    But kudos to the militaries who shot ’em dead to retrieve their own citizens.

  2. Please tell me how the “volunteer coast guard” stopped nuclear dumping? And the toll taken by the pirates isnt just in terms of lives, but billions of dollars (between arms, and materiel, and food, and other hijacked and appropriated goods)!

    Lawlessness is a way of life now for these people, whether the Government sheltered terrorists, or took bribes, or whether the people become self-appointed vigilantes, meting out justice by robbing and killing persons who had nothing to do with the original offenses (ie nuclear dumping, illegal fishing).

    In fact, the current Government in Somalia has denounced the piracy but obviously there’s too much money and notoriety in it to stop now! These brigands CHOOSE to engage in terrorism, and should be tried accordingly. Illegal fishing and nuclear dumping should also be tried accordingly. If the Somalis have proof of the culprits, they should have taken that evidence to the appropriate venue, not turn to piracy…..thats just how I see it.

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