The National Post | 10.28.11
By Alan W. Dowd

The recent operation by NATO forces to free the crew of an Italian ship from pirates serves as a reminder that this ancient plague of the seas remains a threat to global commerce—and that the West’s response to is not adequate.

The International Maritime Organization reports that Somali pirates have attacked 199 ships this year and currently hold 10 ships and 251 hostages. Yet the anti-piracy effort off the Horn of Africa, led by the most powerful navies on earth, is stymied by self-defeating rules of engagement.

For instance, Reuters reports that the EU’s approach includes confiscating the pirates’ weapons “and leaving them with only enough petrol to get back to shore.” Sailors aboard the USS Gettysburg jokingly call their ship “Hotel Gettysburg” due to the generous hospitality they offer captured pirates. After seizing a Dutch-flagged cargo ship, Somali pirates were taken to the Netherlands to stand trial and promptly claimed that the Dutch cargo ship had attacked them. The Somalis were found guilty, but EU officials now worry about pirates seeking asylum. Worst of all, since January 2010, the NATO-EU piracy taskforce has caught and released 1,500 pirates. All told, 90 percent of captured pirates have been released, according to EU officials. 

This is the very definition of self-defeating, and it has real costs.

Piracy off the Horn of Africa claims the lives of merchant mariners and travelers; impedes the delivery of vital food aid (NATO launched its anti-piracy efforts after the UN asked for assistance protecting humanitarian-aid deliveries); and increases the cost of goods. According to the Congressional Research Service, insurers are charging extra premiums of up to $20,000 per trip through the Gulf of Aden. As a result, some cargo lines are choosing alternate routes, increasing total distance traveled by as much as 38 percent. Other shippers are sending goods by air, which costs 10 times as much as seaborne transport. Still others simply cough up ransom money. These “piracy surcharges” are passed on to consumers.

Piracy also poses a threat to security. Pirates have hijacked freighters loaded with T-72 battle tanks and poisonous chemicals. Plus, 11 percent of global oil supplies travel through the Gulf of Aden.

The worrisome reality is that men willing to commit piracy—stateless, lawless men—have no qualms about selling their plunder to the highest bidder, which explains why yesterday’s seafaring powers dealt with pirates in a far different manner than today’s catch-and-release approach.

As Angus Konstam details in his book “Piracy: The Complete History,” Pompey the Great spent “the equivalent today of half the U.S. budget and armed forces” to fight piracy, sinking 500 pirate ships and razing 120 coastal bases.

“Reluctance to use countervailing force tended only to encourage the pirates,” notes the University of South Carolina’s Donald Puchala, adding that piracy has historically been combated “by a single major power, frequently the hegemon of the era.”

The United States plays that role today, working alongside Canada and other partners in Combined Task Force 151 (CTF151), a multi-national armada that patrols the waters around Somalia.

This is nothing new, really. In fact, it could be argued that pirates are America’s oldest enemy. At the time of George Washington’s inauguration, the U.S. government routinely paid tribute and ransom to Barbary pirates. Thomas Jefferson bitterly opposed this policy, and he overturned it once in office, authorizing large-scale counter-piracy operations. Between 1801 and 1855, U.S. forces carried out such missions in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Pacific, and along the coasts of Asia and Africa. Similarly, Ronald Reagan dealt with a kind of latter-day Barbary piracy, when Libya declared the Gulf of Sidra as its own. In response, the U.S. Navy repeatedly engaged the Libyan military. After pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama, Barack Obama authorized Navy SEALs to kill the attackers.

In short, perhaps it’s time to let the navies of CTF151 do what they’re capable of doing. It may seem too uncivilized for the 21st century, but the common denominator of successful counter-piracy campaigns throughout history is the use of military force not simply to apprehend pirates, but to target them, destroy their vessels and eliminate their bases.

This isn’t to suggest that pirates who surrender should be ordered to walk the plank. However, captured pirates should not be released. They should be imprisoned. Where and how is a solvable problem that policymakers should tackle, either at the nation-state level or through international mechanisms.

One reason that piracy off the Somali coast is difficult to combat is related to how far these pirates operate from land. Using large ships to launch dozens of smaller boats, Somali pirates conduct attacks a thousand miles out to sea. The solution: sink the mother ships.

Another reason is lawlessness on land. It’s no coincidence that the pirate plague is raging off the failed state of Somalia. Given the UN’s unsuccessful nation-building efforts in Somalia in the 1990s, there’s little interest in another round of nation-building today. What CTF151 can do is target the pirates’ coastal spawning grounds. As Qaddafi’s loyalists in Libya and the terror cells in the AfPak theater have learned, NATO can track, target and take out hostile forces—with great precision—but only if the policymakers allow them to do so.