The curious incident of the US Navy in Somalia

Tackling piracy off Somalia might not be in US interests

One of the points that came up in recent off-blog discussions with a fellow INI blogger was the rather curious surge in piracy off Somalia’s coast during a period when the US Navy had a significant deployment in the region. Yesterday’s post suggested that “the US navy’s reluctance to take a more forceful stand against Somali pirates is intriguing.”

Some cynics responded by saying that this is so that American private military companies can benefit by providing security services to the world’s shipping companies. Beyond that ready explanation—it is traditionally used to explain most US foreign policy decisions—the question is whether there are deeper strategic reasons motivating the US Navy’s posture in this theatre.

Galrahn at Information Dissemination (one of the best blogs on naval affairs) offers a realist explanation. He argues that “Somali piracy is not counter to US interests in Somalia.”

The United States is essentially allowing Somalia to remain an ungoverned country because the status quo gives us more freedom of action in fighting al Qaeda and other extremist terrorism allies in Somalia. Piracy is a side effect, and not necessarily a terrible side effect, of that strategy…The pirates are not only commercial in nature, but they are enemies of the Islamic extremists that represent the enemy of the United States. It sounds crazy to say, but the pirates are essentially the secular, liberal capitalists of Somalia, and the United States would prefer to deal WITH not AGAINST those types of people.[Information Dissemination]

On the face of it, this is a reasonable conclusion. It explains why the Pentagon spokesman held forth about a holistic approach, when a case can easily be made that piracy can be contained by purely military means. But it is unclear why the United States is so sure that piracy will remain the domain of liberal, secular capitalist Somalis. As a tactic, piracy can help the Islamist militias to secure funds and weapons. As a strategy, it could help open a new front in al-Qaeda’s war against the West. Unless the US Navy can be selective and calibrate its go-easy policy on pirates, there could be unpleasant, unintended consequences for its own interests.

But Galrahn’s other point—that the go-easy policy makes other countries realise the need to update international law to tackle the such threats in the twenty-first century is more valid. But it is hard to accept that American attitudes are driven by grand strategy. For any sufficiently advanced grand strategic explanation is indistinguishable from post-fact rationalisation.

15 thoughts on “The curious incident of the US Navy in Somalia”

  1. I just think that the US is relucant to get bogged down in such peacekeeping, where there is no endgame in sight. Furthermore, the pirates may be at odds with the Islamists, just as the various Afghan warlords and opium smugglers were at adds with the Taliban.

  2. Nitin, Islamists are already going after the pirates, at least in one instance. The real reason for non-total-engagement could be what Sanjay says. An alternative could be that Bush is kicking the ball into Obama’s court to deal with it without announcing a major nation rebuilding policy in the last few months of his time.

    If US doing what Galrahn says its doing, then US is not manning the commons and its superpower days may be numbered.

  3. I heard people saying that money from those cheap VCDs and DVDs sold at the roadside in Indian cities goes to Dawood Ibrahim. It could be that piracy is high on the to-do list of Al-Qaeda, if not already being used by it.

  4. “But it is unclear why the United States is so sure that piracy will remain the domain of liberal, secular capitalist Somalis. As a tactic, piracy can help the Islamist militias to secure funds and weapons. As a strategy, it could help open a new front in al-Qaeda’s war against the West. Unless the US Navy can be selective and calibrate its go-easy policy on pirates, there could be unpleasant, unintended consequences for its own interests.”

    But so far it has remained the domain of liberal, secular capitalist Somalis. Should islamic terrorists begin pirating, then the US can take action against all pirates, likely with the full support of the international community. No need to discriminate later, and no need to act now.

  5. Sanjay,

    The most that can be said about the Thai ship-owner’s story is that he could be the original owner of the ship that the IN claimed was the “mother ship”. It was not an ‘accidental’ sinking—but rather a response to aggressive behaviour when challenged. The Indian Navy has said it fired in self-defence from the very outset.

    I don’t think it is prudent for the Tabar’s commander to check on the ownership history of ships that threaten him.

  6. Nitin,

    Identification is a major factor in ROE’s and especially in the Red sea where no clear demarcated zones exist of any conflict.piracy is just a menace ,its not war.No warship can take the identification problem lightly when the area in which the Indian Navy is operating is a busy international waters.The US is clear about this problem and knows the cosequences of a wrong targetting and therefore have stayed away apart from other compulsions.Your contention that it is not prudent for tabars commander to check on the ships antecedents will not stand scrutiny under international maritime law.that is the reason the why said earlier that the downsides are messy in this area and the Indian Navy is not prepared for it.more is yet to follow.

  7. ghana shyam,

    The issue of international maritime law is subject to interpretation: jus cogens, in my view, provides sufficient grounds for India to act against pirates. In the Tabar’s case, I don’t think concern for international maritime law should get in the way of responding to aggression.

    As with any bold venture, the downside is messy. But the fear of messy downsides ought not to cause pusillanimity or paralysis. The costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action.

  8. But really, could rocket propelled grenades really have done much damage to a frigate?

    And what is the stand-off distance for engaging a vessel with anti-ship cruise missiles? I’m sure anything INS Tabar carried far outranged Somali equipment. Was it really necessary to sink the vessel?

  9. Neel, what would be purpose in being gentle with a hostile vessel? To further endanger one’s own crew? I don’t think a hostile vessel can claim Miranda rights on the high seas.

  10. To prevent collateral damage, of course. To save us from international humiliation as well. Unless I’m very mistaken, its not like the enemy vessel could have harmed the Tabar. Anti-personnel weaponry and patient maneuvering would have allowed the capture of the vessel, and perhaps the capture of some of the pirates as well.

  11. @Neel,

    The IN is a professional outfit. If the Tabar’s captain thought that shooting at the ship was the best course of action, I’d say it was the right thing to do. Because he commands one of India’s most modern warships and the people on this blog discussion command their keyboards. Second guessing the commander doesn’t appear too convincing.

    Btw, grenades can damage frigates and things on the frigate. And it is unlikely that the navy would have used expensive ordinance just to take out a pirate ship.

    But hello friends—what’s the problem here? Humiliation? Sorry, humiliation is when two penny pirates hold Indian sailors and ships to ransom and this great nation merely wrings its hands.

  12. Nitin,

    Would you have agreed to a similar action if instead of a trawler a VLCC was in its place and it was perceived to be hostile.fortunately for the Navy it was not so otherwise we would have had a lot to pay and answer.we still have a lot of answering to do to the thai govt.these are serious issues when innocent lives are lost because of so called action in self defence. Only other action of similar targetting was the case of the Iranian Airliner.

    In maritime law you have to prove the intent of agression. A Bold venture would have been to overpower the pirates along with the crew of the trawler and not using your excessive power just because you can use it.The weapon used to sink the trawler was surely of more range than whatever the pirates used.

    @Neel’s comments are relevent. Lets not behave like Rambo the IVth.

  13. @ghana,

    Why do you take the Thai guy on his word? As for sinking a VLCC, don’t you think the guys on the Tabar have brains?

    IIRC, the whole idea is to engage the pirates while staying out of their range. Tabar made a good call under the circumstances.

    So what do you have to say about the two other ships the Tabar saved earlier? Grateful Saudis are good to have, IMHO.

  14. Try this – I own a car, but my car is stolen. The men who stole my car then proceed to rob banks and use my car as a getaway car. The police see my car, driven by the robbers. The robbers open fire with their puny six shooters, while the police have better handguns and open fire. I will be rightly annoyed that my innocent car got caught up in this affair, but the primary fault lies with the men who stole my car.

    If the Thai ship was stolen by pirates, and that ship was used as a mother ship to coordinate other acts of piracy, then the Indian Navy seems to be within its rights.

    As for how much damage the pirates could do to a mighty frigate, go back to 2000 and recall the scale of damage a small speedboat did to the USS Cole.

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