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Somalia: U.S. Policy Aided Rise in Piracy

Among the many booby traps left by the Bush administration for the Obama team, Somalia could be one of the most complicated and bizarre.

Among the litany of booby traps left by the Bush administration for the Obama team, Somalia could be one of the most complicated and bizarre.

The crisis there is also an opportunity, however, as one of the main obstacles to all-party peace talks was the Bush administration's cynical and unrealistic refusal to talk to the most powerful insurgent groups in Somalia because of their alleged association with terrorism. The Obama administration, if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing is any indication, also views the Horn of Africa in the context of terrorism.

Nevertheless, Obama has also talked of his preference for diplomatic solutions. Somalia would be an ideal place to test his diplomacy.

Pirates of the Indian Ocean

Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in December 2006, backed by the United States, sparked an Islamist resistance that led to thousands of civilian deaths, displaced over a million people, and depopulated the capital, Mogadishu. But instead of focusing on the aftermath of this crisis and helping foster a peace process, the United States, European Union, and other international actors are engaged in the more dramatic and media-friendly anti-piracy campaign.

Today's tech-savvy navies, relying on the media and the Internet, have provided live images of high-speed ocean chases, shootouts, helicopter rescues, and parachute ransom drops onto hijacked ships. Galvanized by these images, the United Nations Security Council hastily convened to respond to this "grave threat" to international security. Dozens of warships from the U.S., Italian, Greek, Turkish, Iranian, Saudi Arabian, German, NATO, British, Japanese, Russian, Indian, Chinese, and Danish navies converged on East African waters to fight the pirates. Many interlopers have no geographic proximity or economic interests in the region, but the photo opportunities are irresistible.

The French navy grabbed headlines first by pursuing pirates on land and rescuing some hostages. The mission was accomplished with great aplomb, complete with professional video footage of the "rescue." French officials and heroic naval officers vowed to pursue the pirates to the ends of the earth. Few raised concerns, however, about the violation of Somalia's borders by foreign forces.

The Danish navy nabbed a couple of pirates a few days later, but couldn't decide what to do with them. With no functioning government in Somalia, it isn't clear who has jurisdiction over piracy in Somali waters. After dithering for a while in the high seas, the Danes decided to drop the captured pirates on an isolated beach along the 1,880-mile Somali shoreline.

Not to be outdone, the neophyte Indian navy charged into the picture and blew a Thai trawler to smithereens. Fourteen sailors are still missing. The Indians argued that it looked like a pirate "mother ship." They apologized only to attack yet another fishing vessel a few days later. This time they had the attack on video ready for the cable networks.

On January 8, the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain announced it had formed an anti-piracy taskforce that included "assets" from 20 nations. The taskforce doesn't control other navies in the area. Vice Admiral William Gortney, who commands the coalition and naval forces in the Middle East, said the taskforce had been authorized to arrest suspected pirates and deliver them to an unspecified country for prosecution. Gortney noted that only one-tenth of 1% of the thousands of ships that use the Gulf of Aden are in danger of being hijacked.

Instead of auditioning for the next episode of Pirates of the Indian Ocean, the international community should invest its resources in seeking a political solution to the chaos in Somalia. Piracy, anarchy, kidnapping, and clan wars won't stop until there is some form of stable government there.

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