February 26, 2009

HARRISONBURG—Today in his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, reacts to the most recent successful hijacking by Somali pirates—the seizure Sunday of the Greek-owned, Maltese-flagged container ship MV Saldanha while a British warship HMS Northumberland watched helpless nearby, unable to intervene because the attackers had already taken hostages—as well as the dispatch of the supercarrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its strike group to a deployment that includes anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea and western Indian Ocean, by suggesting a more “sustainable” approach to assuring maritime security in the region.

The essay’s argument opens by raising a number of issues with the reliance on a naval build-up in the region and then, in answering them, poses the key question:

[I]f sending more naval vessels to the region is neither particularly effective nor sustainable and the international community has shown little stomach for trying to effectively address the problems arising from the collapse of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic and the failure of any unitary successor state to emerge, what might constitute a realistic response to the threat, at least in the intermediate term, that is, between that time in the next few months when either more urgent crises or simply required rotations take most of the current international naval presence away from the waters off Somalia and such moment in the as-yet-undetermined future when Somalis (other than those in Somaliland who constitute a separate case) manage to establish for themselves something resembling a legitimate government capable of fulfilling its international legal obligations, including preventing outlaws from using its territory to attack peaceful international commerce?

After defining the “green waters” of the “littorals” as the environment where the challenge of piracy needs to be met and defeated, Dr. Pham examines Southeast Asia where regional cooperation, both multilateral and interagency, has significantly reduced incidents of maritime piracy in recent years, noting that the latter region “is not East Africa, but many of the lessons learned are certainly applicable.” The piece concludes:

[I]ncreased capacity by willing partners as well as cooperation between neighboring states can significantly advance maritime security along the East African littoral—and do so in a far more sustainable fashion—than simply increasing the number of naval vessels from the United States and other outside powers throughout the region in deployments which simply cannot be sustained. However, given that the naval and coast guard capabilities in the region are neither as advanced nor as robust as those in Southeast Asia, the United States and the rest of the international community needs to do more to assist in the building up of counter-piracy coalition, partnering, as appropriate, with states in the area, effective and legitimate authorities in the territory of the former Somali state, subregional organizations, and the African Union. With its emphasis on “smart power”…the administration of President Barack Obama ought to find that strengthening the ability of America’s regional partners to assert basic control over the littoral is the most effective path towards nurturing and sustaining maritime security in otherwise perilous waters off the Horn. Foreign Military Finance (FMF), Section 1206, Section 1207, and other security cooperation funds should be made available to begin now the task of building adequate regional coastal security forces .

In short, coming to the assistance of local actors who recognize the challenge that Somali piracy poses to their interests and are willing to work against it will not only serve the broad national interest of the United States in mitigating the threat and protecting the freedom of seas (and do so economically and efficiently), but it will help reduce the chaos in Somalia itself which, along with opportunity, is the primary cause of the scourge in the first place.

To read the full text of the article, “A Sustainable Response to the Scourge of Somali Piracy,” click here.