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The Quest Tragedy and a Strategic Response to Piracy

With the sad news of the murder of four Americans by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa, the United States and the international community once again have to realize that ignoring the situation in East Africa is not a viable or productive option. For decades, the lawlessness of the area has allowed piracy to become the de facto career choice for young men desperate for money and to do the unthinkable to those who unfortunately come within range of their coastal waters. Commercial shipping interests and private sailing vessels have been equal targets of opportunity and despite the successful U.S. Navy operations in 2009 that rescued the skipper and crew of the Maersk Alabama and increased U.S. presence in these dangerous waters this situation continues to go on without interruption.

Now that four American civilians have been murdered, two of whom were doing Christian missionary work, there will be new calls for dealing with the situation in Somalia and East Africa. I’m certainly in the column of people that wants to give full license and opportunity to Navy SEAL teams and other elite U.S. military units to do what they need to do take out these unwanted elements, but there also has to be an element of common sense applied to our actions.

What is left to us, as Americans, and the larger international community is what we are going do about a cancerous situation that if left unattended can and will spread further.

The murdered crew of four from the sailing yacht Quest were warned by multiple parties to stay clear of the East Africa area given the almost constant acts of piracy that occur there. For whatever their reason, be it spiritual given the missionary work they were doing, or practical given it may have been a shorter route to their intended destination(s) they chose to go into the ultimate of danger zones. They unfortunately paid the ultimate price for that choice. All of us can shake our heads at that decision, but in the end it was theirs and theirs alone.

What is left to us, as Americans, and the larger international community is what we are going do about a cancerous situation that if left unattended can and will spread further. East Africa is home to famine, extreme poverty and lawlessness, and for many in the United States military, painful memories of “Black Hawk Down” situations. It is for all intents and purposes the Afghanistan of Africa – an area that has little to nothing going for it and has basically been ignored by the civilized world.

Piracy

A European Union Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR) ship sinks a pirate whaler. Photo courtesy EUNAVFOR

Television pundits, cable news shows and the blogosphere will all undoubtedly light up about their support for bombing the pirate strongholds on the coast of Somalia. That is certainly one response option, and even an appropriate one, but the conditions in this part of the world merit a more strategic action. Every ship that sails into this area, be it cargo, fuel tanker, commercial or even private vessel, regardless of what national flag it is under, is a target for attack – hence the need for a multi-lateral response and not a solitary unilateral, one-time action.

Bombing a few mud huts and pirate speed boats may provide a balm to our inherent desire to teach someone a painful and costly lesson, but it will do nothing to remedy the situation. While there are a respectable number of U.S. Navy and other international vessels that patrol these waters to protect against pirates and other regional threats, deploying additional naval forces to these waters for joint exercises as well as increased international escorts for shipping is probably the most practical as well as most costly option. For reasons that range from the challenges of international diplomacy and depleted operating budgets, to logistical considerations and even ego, consistent escorting of commercial shipping and other secure patrols have not been done. Instead we offer words of condemnation and “tsk, tsk,” wagging fingers from the likes of the United Nations, the White House and other international capitals. Those actions have always made pirates and other international thugs tremble. …

Brute and very visible force is the only thing these parties understand and respect, and unless we are willing to show it, or for that matter use it, the scourge of piracy will go on uninhibited.

Brute and very visible force is the only thing these parties understand and respect, and unless we are willing to show it, or for that matter use it, the scourge of piracy will go on uninhibited. Marshalling that force in strategic ways would allow the United States and other countries to protect the people, resources and commerce that flow through that area.

Until then, we will continue to pay multimillion dollar ransoms for hijacked vessels or have military forces deploy after the fact and try to piece together a solution to an already untenable situation. I don’t think either of those are long term options for anyone. Nor is ignoring the very real warnings against sailing into an area where no one belongs. Those warnings should be taken with greater seriousness by private boaters before deciding to sail into a no-man’s land. Actions like that unfortunately lead to martyrdom, and that has never been a strategic option either.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...