The United States Should Avoid ’Grand Schemes’ in Somalia

CFR’s Bronwyn Bruton says the United States will not be able to end piracy in Somalia by using force and should take a modest approach that avoids grand schemes to reconstruct the government.

April 14, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Defense and Security

This weekend, U.S. Navy forces killed three Somali pirates who had been holding a civilian U.S. ship captain hostage. CFR’s International Affairs Fellow Bronwyn Bruton says the conflict should have been avoidable, but with the hostage situation playing out so publicly, President Barack Obama didn’t have many options. She suggests that the recent military operation could cause the pirates to become "more violent than ever before." Bruton says the Obama administration should avoid "grand schemes" involving reconstruction of the Somali government or a coast guard as a way of undermining Somali-based piracy. "We have a limited capacity to influence events in Somalia," she says, "but we have an almost unlimited capacity to make a mess of things."

The U.S. Navy raid that happened this weekend--do you see that as a model for future pirate operations and is this a sustainable way of battling piracy?

I really hope it won’t be a model for future responses to piracy, the reason being that it was an extremely dangerous situation for the hostage. The pirates are professional to a large degree. They have the capacity when they get their hostages on land to negotiate very calmly through professional networks and to make sure that the hostage stays healthy and safe throughout that process. When the pirates are put in a high-tension situation, there is a really large possibility that they will react violently. The Somalis have a very macho culture, and the idea of backing down is not attractive to them. And in fact, Somalis are kind of famous for opening fire on Black Hawk helicopters and getting hacked to pieces by them because they don’t want to be shown backing down from a confrontation.

And at the same time, President [Barack] Obama in reacting to the crisis was also put in a terrible position, in the sense that he wasn’t able to allow the pirates to do the sensible thing of taking the hostage to shore because that would have been perceived as a loss for the American military. He didn’t want a headline saying, ’Somali Pirates Escape with American Captain.’ Because it would have taken a month to resolve this situation and by that time the media would have moved on, and it would have made him look weak, which is something that he really cannot afford, particularly in an environment like Somalia. So it was a no-win situation for both sides, really. And the fact that it played out so publicly was really unfortunate because to a large extent, the conflict was avoidable.

In terms of the naval response, we have to acknowledge that it’s at best a Band-Aid. We’re talking about an area of water that’s over a million square miles, depending on how you calculate it, probably a million and a half square miles. The pirates are expanding their range of operation constantly. [U]nless we’re really willing to blanket the area, we can’t hope to prevent pirates from taking ships. At the same time, the cost of piracy, if you look at it in real terms, is probably a couple hundred million dollars a year. The pirates are taking $30 million to $40 million in ransom. It costs about the same amount for the shipping companies to have their cargo delayed for the month or two that it takes to negotiate. And then on top of that, it costs about $1 million a month for the Navy to keep those ships on the water, and there’s twelve to fifteen ships at a time. So over the course of the year, we’re looking at probably $250 million. And in the grand scheme of international shipping, that’s not necessarily a lot of money, particularly when it’s spread out over so many different countries.

We need to look at, first of all, how expensive is piracy. And second, whether or not we can actually defeat piracy through military means, or if this is a problem that really needs to be confronted over a very long time, very cautiously and diplomatically, in the context of increasing radicalization in Somalia and state collapse.

We have to start off by recognizing that we have a limited capacity to influence events in Somalia, to influence them positively. But we have an almost unlimited capacity to make a mess of things.

Up until this point, a lot of these piracy hostage situations have been dealt winath through negotiation and then a ransom payment. Does this latest incident signal a shift in the ways in which these things play out and possibly herald a new level of violence?

One of the things that Somali officials have been critical of is the international habit of paying out ransom. They’ve pointed out that the only real way to stop piracy is to stop paying the pirates for capturing ships. At the same time, nobody wants to be the one to refuse to pay a ransom and risk the pirates retaliating against the crews they’re keeping hostage. The U.S. decision to kill the pirates could very well cause an escalation in the level of violence that the pirates are using. There’s been some speculation that if we bomb the pirates, if we attack them, if we up the cost of their activities, we might just sway them. But that’s really unrealistic. The majority of these pirates are gunmen who have been recruited from land militias, where the potential payout for them is very low and the dangers are very, very high. People are killed in Somalia every day, all day, and the idea that pirates are going to be persuaded by a risk to their life and limb is not very realistic. If anything, raising the stakes is probably going to cause them to try to be more violent than ever before. Not only because they’re going to need that tactically, but because it’s really in their culture not to back down from a challenge like this.

And does this latest incident involving the United States change the overall Somali perspective on pirates?

We’ll have to see what the outcome in Somalia is. It’s certainly well-known that the pirates are popular on land. Most Somalis tend to see the pirates as kind of Robin Hoods because they’re really aware of the cost of the illegal fishing of Somali waters. Estimates are that $300 million to $400 million worth of fish are stolen from Somalia by European, Thai, and Korean fishers every year. And Somalis have watched their livelihoods melt away because of this practice. They’re also remembering the 2005 tsunami, after which dozens of barrels of toxic waste washed up on Somali shores, and that also made them feel that Somalia was being brutalized. Their state collapse is really being capitalized on by wealthier nations. So the pirates, in this context, seem like some of the only guys who are able to fight back against these practices.

If anything, raising the stakes is probably going to cause them to try to be more violent than ever before.

At this point, what, if any, good policy options does the United States have in Somalia?

We have to start off by recognizing that we have a limited capacity to influence events in Somalia, to influence them positively. But we have an almost unlimited capacity to make a mess of things. If we go in there with guns blazing, if we agitate the population, if we increase animosity against the United States, the Islamist radicals that we fear in that country will definitely profit from it. Likewise, if we go in with grand schemes to reconstruct the government, and to construct a coast guard or a navy or military forces, we’re likely to see that backfire.

The simple approach is best. If we go in and work with existing local authorities who are transparent, who are tied to their local communities, who are responsive and accountable, then we have a better chance of dealing with piracy in the short term and in the long term. We need to examine those possibilities. I also think we should absolutely discount any ideas about going in and dealing with the pirates by force. Piracy is really entrenched in Somalia at this point. The pirates themselves are probably one or two thousand guys that can be easily replaced by thousands of other guys who are desperately unemployed and very familiar with guns, perfectly capable of jumping on a boat and taking off where their comrades left off. But we should also remember that the pirates are supported by thousands and thousands of people on land. Whole villages are surviving on the pirate industry. Ten to fifteen thousand people are cooking food for the hostages, they’re carting supplies, and we can’t hope to really put a dent in that network by going into a village and snatching thirty or forty pirates. Likewise, the financial backing for these pirates is in Dubai or Mogadishu or Johannesburg, and we’re not really likely to be able to attack that through military means. This is really a problem that is going to take a long-term and complex set of solutions.