A Good Idea For Dealing With African Pirates

As the seas of the Indian Ocean, like those of the Atlantic, calm with the end of storm season, we need to worry about another threat that dominated the news at times earlier in the year but has since fallen off our radars: piracy along the African coast.

The impressive operation to rescue the captain of the Mersk Alabama last spring did not end the problem. That operation, culminating in a dramatic SEAL operation of classic vintage that killed the pirates and liberated their hostage, was the right response to the situation. But it was not a model we can or should expect to easily repeat. There is a need for a more preventive strategy.

The stakes are getting higher this fall. Although the impressive multilateral convoy operation in the Gulf of Aden continues to protect ships in more northern waters as they leave the Suez Canal and Red Sea, there is no dependable protection for vessels going southward from that point toward ports in Kenya and beyond. Yet ships traversing these routes carry, among other things, food aid for East African states that will have to increase in coming months as drought conditions in that part of the world remain severe. Other cargo needs to be shipped as well, ranging from military supplies for the fledgling and beleaguered Somali government to commercial goods that reflect the efforts of Kenya and other regional states to gradually integrate with a globalizing economy.

The pirates put all of that, and countless lives, at risk. They also threaten Americans aboard some of those transport vessels. And of course what is mostly a risk to a few brave, enterprising seamen could become a national security issue if al Qaeda or related groups get involved in the next kidnapping operation, possibly trying to take and hold Americans hostage to achieve a public relations coup.

In this light, the idea of Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings makes sense. Cummings has inserted into the House-passed version of the 2010 Defense authorization bill language that would have U.S. military personnel board cargo ships for the perilous part of their journey from the Gulf of Aden to East African ports. They would of course have the right to use weapons in defense of themselves, the ships they ride, and the crews of those ships from locations that would maximize their prospects for timely and accurate use of force. Using American military personnel is the right way to go because they have the necessary training to use force carefully; in addition, ensuring the safety of the high seas is an appropriate and time-tested role for the armed forces of great powers and is the sort of thing our military should feel a certain obligation to carry out.

Chances are good, though, that their presence – and perhaps a few demonstration shots near any ships that came near – would suffice to deter pirate action before lives were put at direct risk. After all, these pirates are not particularly well organized, equipped, or trained. They are profiting from a completely unsecured environment in these perilous waters, out of the mainstream of most world commerce but crucial for the peoples of East Africa and for American interests there. They are sometimes successful only because we are basically ignoring the problem.

Former Rep. Steve Solarz and I wrote an essay several months ago advocating the use of convoys for ships moving along these routes, to complement the convoys further north. That remains a reasonable option in some cases, especially if enough shipping vessels can be gathered together at one time. However, the Cummings idea may be more appropriate for the individual ships often making this trek in isolation. It also could be cheaper, and easier on the Navy, than the convoy approach.

In its version of the defense bill, the Senate has not approved comparable language to that of the House. The bill is now in conference, and this issue should be addressed there, with the House version prevailing. Implementation of the use of armed teams can still be handled prudently, and at the discretion of CENTCOM commanders; the defense bill need not and should not try to dictate tactical operations. But it can push the U.S. military to take this mission seriously and help us address our remaining Achilles’ heel regarding the pirate threat before we again have to learn the hard way – with American lives put at risk in the process.