My op-ed in Mail Today: Send the Navy to tackle Somali pirates

India must act to protect its interests off Somalia

In today’s op-ed in Mail Today, I argue that India must be the ultimate protector of its citizens, wherever they might be on the planet.

ACCORDING to the International Maritime Bureau, pirates have attacked 69 ships off the coast of Somalia since January this year. They hijacked 27 and are currently holding 11 of them for ransom. Along with the ships and their cargo, they are holding more than 200 sailors hostage, of whom at least 18, including Captain P K Goyal of MT Stolt Valor, are Indian nationals. At least two Indian owned ships have been lost off these waters since 2006. A piracy-powered economy has developed in the Puntland region of Somalia, astride a corridor that carries a significant part of the worlds—and India’s—seaborne trade.

Clearly, piracy off Somalia presents a threat not only to international commerce and security, but also to humanitarian relief operations.

Humanitarian assistance to Somalia is under threat as the World Food Programme’s shipments have been suspended after coming under attack. Indeed, the ransom-driven economy, entrenched warlordism, radical Islamic militancy make the country a conducive breeding ground for international terrorism, turning the region into a watery Afghanistan.

At a time when the global economy is reeling under the weight of a widening financial crisis, additional risk and insurance premiums for the shipping trade are something the world, and certainly India, could do without.

Both the UN Security Council and the president of Somalia have called for the international community to take an interest in patrolling the region. According to Seth Weinberger, a strategic affairs commentator, suo motu action against pirates has legal sanction under international law. “Piracy is one of the clearest examples of jus cogens, a preemptory norm that creates a crime for which there is no possible justification and for which there is universal jurisdiction. Thus, anyone who wishes to act against the pirates is legally allowed to do so.

However, that creates a problem — in the absence of a specific jurisdiction, no one has the responsibility or strong incentive to act ( why should one state bear the cost of enforcement when the cost of piracy falls on many?).”

As long as the pirate attacks were distributed in time and space, they remained under the threshold of international attention. But in the last few months, the pirates of Puntland have made the strategic mistake of becoming too successful.

They also ran out of luck. Among the vessels they hijacked was one carrying a huge arms shipment, and another, something altogether more mysterious (variously speculated to involve chemical weapons or radioactive material). And suddenly, the worlds navies with the capability to get there—save India’s—decided that it was time to go pirate hunting (or, at the very least, pirate watching) in the Red Sea. The US navy is already there. The Russian navy is on its way (and may well demonstrate some muscle in the days ahead). Last month, French special forces rescued two of their nationals in a daring commando operation. The European Union “is setting up an anti-piracy taskforce to help protect the lawless sea lanes off east Africa”. So is NATO.

Among the tasks assigned to the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF- 150)—an international naval task force comprising, among others, US, British, French, Pakistani and Bahraini ships—are maritime security operations in the Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. While its purpose is to deny the use of the seas to smugglers and terrorists, the main problem in the area under its watch is piracy.

CTF- 150 doesn’t have enough ships to secure one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. So it advises large, slower vessels to travel in convoys so that it can better watch over them.

But since this is not always possible, around one in 500 ships falls victim to pirates. Since the monthly traffic is around 1,500, pirates succeed in raiding three or four ships each month.

Amid all this, the Indian government is demonstrating an inexplicable reluctance to dispatch the Indian Navy to the waters off Somalia. The UPA government has been sitting on an Indian Navy proposal to secure Indian maritime interests off Somalia. According to Defence Minister A K Antony, “as a policy, the government would not carry out hot pursuit of pirates, as it had wider implications.” It is hard to understand what “wider implications” Mr Antony is worried about when even the UN Security Council, through its resolution 1816, adopted with Somalia’s consent in June 2008, authorised for a period of six months, “all necessary means” to suppress acts of piracy.

Not only does the Indian government’s pusillanimity disregard the threat to India’s interests in the region, it also ignores the fact that a century ago, it was the (British) Indian navy that used to secure the Red Sea. In a report to the US Library of Congress David Laitin states that “during the prime ministership of William Gladstone in the 1880s, it was decided that the Indian government should be responsible for administering the Somaliland protectorate because the Somali coast’s strategic location on the Gulf of Aden was important to India. Customs taxes helped pay for India’s patrol of Somalia’s Red Sea Coast.” More recently, the Indian Navy dispatched a three-ship task force to those waters in 1992, in support of a US-led international intervention in the wake of Somalia’s civil war. According to the Indian Navy, it “spent a total of 347 ship days maintaining vigil along the Somali coast and ports during 1992-93.” In addition, it supported the de-induction of Indian blue helmets from Somalia in 1994.

Seen against India’s readiness to contribute troops for UN peacekeeping operations around the world—in places where India has little at stake—the UPA government’s refusal to authorise the Navy to protect India’s interests is all the more incongruous.

Indeed, it underlines a lack of appreciation of the role of the armed forces and the use of military power at a fundamental level. As this particular case highlights, even the oft-cited fig leaf of the need for UN authorisation before India deploys its armed forces cannot cover up the sorry state of defence policymaking. A self-assured power would use military force when it is called for, regardless of international opinion, like India did in East Pakistan in 1971, Sri Lanka in 1987 and Maldives in 1988.

More recently, the Indian navy evacuated over 1,700 of its nationals from Lebanon in June 2006, in the wake of war between Israel and the Hezbollah militia. The Lebanon operation underlines what ought to be a tenet of Indias foreign policy—that India is the ultimate protector of the lives of its citizens, wherever they might be on the planet.

The Indian sailors currently held hostage might have been sailing on Hong Kong registered ships belonging to Japanese owners. But if commercial negotiations are unable to secure their release, then surely, India can’t abandon its nationals to the mercies of Somali pirates? Instead of ruling out this option or that, as Mr Antony has done, the policy of the Indian government must be to keep all options on the table.

It is in India’s interests to work with the international maritime forces to contain the Somali pirates. There is a clear case to deploy the Indian Navy in the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia, with rules of engagement that include hot pursuit. Indeed, there is a clear case to task the marine commandos with hostage-rescue missions where Indian ships and nationals are taken hostage.

© 2008. Mail Today. All rights reserved.

9 thoughts on “My op-ed in Mail Today: Send the Navy to tackle Somali pirates”

  1. @Nitin: It occurred to me that a festering piracy in that area might be enough to let a multi-nation navy to linger on. Till we have the capacity or political will to go in for ourselves, that might be a Good Thing(TM) with which to occupy the vaccum, instead of say, leaving the area open for the Chinese navy to come in.

    True, our Marcos would be better utilized on the high seas than the Wular but why choose when we can go to both places.

    The conspiracy theorist in me feels a Chinese hand behind these pirates. Ahrr…Ni Hao..Mate! 😉

  2. Unrelated – is your page rank slipping because of the interest surrounding the US organization ACORN?

  3. Nitin, i like ppl to look at the issue in a different perspective. we r not the saviours of the world, and it would not bother us if somali pirates took a ship a day, provided it was not india, as also no repeat no indian citizen or cargo was involved. it is an issue of geopolitical consequence. if want to project ourselves as a regional power, we have to understand that there are some places where international law takes back seat and the national interest comes to the forefront. hence our foreign policy shud have a clause for retribution or punishment in case any of indian interests are harmed, and we have to be fanatical about it. decisions on action shud be automatic, without the usual dithering due to the analysis of repurcussions of the actions. our government took one week to take a decision on the issue, when it was too late, whereas we shud have had a contingency plan with navy ready to take action based on a decision by one individual (no more NSC or the cabinet, which takes 18 hours and still does not take any decision). such actions would generate a sense a respect for the country, and a sense of self pride among the indian themselves who look at other countries for role models.

    India shud have tied up with a central asian republic and after the hostages had been released from afghanistan, afghanistan shud have been bombed as a punishment which was well within our capability. similarly during the Fiji crisis at least a bit of force posturing with a few warships shud have been done. the power of a country is not having a weapon, but in its ability to take a decision to use them. so let the indian government first get out of its indian mentality of sitting pretty on issues hoping they would resolve themselves. bangladesh’s killing of 18 BSF personnel is a case in point. why did we not launch a punitive strike and then talk to them. it would have made Nepal think 10 times before kidnapping any indian citizen, and bangladesh would have thrown out all ULFA camps out of the country.

    i have heard the refrain of “it is not as easy as you think” or “there are bigger issues involved” i call them tools of weak. let us not brandish our strength, but it shud be unsheathed without hesitation at the time of need.

    well there are some preparations to be done before we try such things. first we have to decide if R&W is a clerical organisation or a premier intelligence organisation, and change its structure. secondly let the three arms of defence develop capability to undertake such operations either jointly or independently. change the NSA to a more empowered appointment, who shud be second to the PM, and be able to take decisions in emergency.

    and Nitin, chinese would not like to get their navy there, but interrupt your shipping lines to keep u occupied. there is a need for learning geopolitics if u want to write about national interest.

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