|Battling the Scourge of Piracy|
For the past couple of weeks, I had the unique opportunity to transit the North Atlantic aboard the USS Bataan. Admittedly, it was a working passage as I was participating in the U.S. Naval Post-graduate School's Regional Security Education Program.
This is a relatively new program. Introduced in the wake of the October 2000 terrorist attack against the USS Cole, it is intended to provide both Navy and Marine commanders with access to subject matter experts who are familiar with the regions to which their troops may soon be deployed.
While my lectures provided a boots-on-the-ground perspective of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, my two colleagues provided analysis on topics ranging from the roots of the Islamic religion to the present strategic role Iran plays in the Middle East. One of the most topical presentations was the one dealing with piracy off the Horn of Africa. This was not surprising given the fact that the USS Bataan battle group would soon be entering those increasingly hostile waters.
The issue of Somali piracy has certainly captured the world's attention in recent months as both the size of the targets and the number of attacks have increased dramatically. The first victims of the Somali pirates had been foreign fishing trawlers that had been taking advantage of the relative anarchy ashore in order to over-fish stocks within Somalia's territorial waters. Once the pirates discovered how lucrative ransom money paid by eager insurance companies could be, they forgot about fishing vessels and set their sights on more prosperous cargos.
Last year there were over 100 attacks on ships transiting the Gulf of Aden, though only about 40 of those were successful. While this may not seem very significant when contrasted with the statistic that over 30,000 ships pass through this busy waterway annually, of those ships captured, the list of successes includes a Saudi Arabian oil tanker carrying $100 million worth of cargo and a Ukrainian freighter hauling 33 T-72 main battle tanks and vast stores of ammunition. With insurance companies willing to pay up to 10 per cent of the cargo value to recoup their merchandise, it is estimated that the Somali pirates pocketed approximately $120 million in 2008 alone.
By comparison, Somalia's only source of export revenue is the trade of livestock, and this amounts to less than $100 million a year. Needless to say, in such a poverty-stricken, war-ravaged country, the pirates of Somalia have become very popular, if for no other reason than they bring back money and food to their people.
Canadian warships have been involved in the international effort to combat the pirates, but to date the results of these operations have been mixed. While the U.S. Navy has introduced a new policy which will allow them to chase suspected pirates within Somali territorial water—and even pursue them ashore if necessary—Canada and other NATO countries have been exercising a "catch and release" doctrine.
The fact that the pirates are using small, speedy skiffs launched from a larger mother ship has also proven tactically challenging for NATO warships. The New York Times quoted an Italian naval officer as saying that using a missile destroyer to chase a pirate motorboat is like "going after someone on a bicycle with a truck."
Perhaps in order to find a solution to the current crisis on the Horn of Africa, we need to revisit the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy," when the Jolly Roger ran rampant throughout the Caribbean during the early 18th century. Then, as today, those who engaged in acts of piracy did so out of economic necessity.
Following the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of Spanish Succession, the bankrupt British Royal Navy cashiered some 36,000 sailors with virtually worthless scripts. Unscrupulous merchant mariners took advantage of the sudden glut of unemployed sailors to slash their crew wages below subsistence levels. Driven to desperation, volunteers soon flocked to the "failed state" of the Bahamas to join forces with such characters as Blackbeard and "Calico Jack" Rackham.
The much-diminished Royal Navy proved no match for the pirates, and in desperation, the British government employed the services of a former privateer named Woodes Rogers to confront the situation. Realizing that the problem originated from the situation ashore rather than at sea, Rogers offered the pirates pardons and promises of development to successfully reintegrate them into society.
While the international community got badly burned by the failed intervention into Somalia in 1993, the piracy spilling onto the high seas today is a direct result of us having cut and run from that crisis 16 years ago. Having our navy capture and punish pirates will not stop the problem. Installing a functioning government in Somalia will end the piracy.