Why We Pay Attention to Piracy

It is the often the nature of a national security challenge that a government does not have the luxury to prepare specifically for the event that causes the crisis to escalate. But the hostage drama in the Horn of Africa was particularly jarring, coming as it did on the heels of President Obama's breathtaking charm offensive through Europe, Turkey and Iraq. The president was barely airborne, heading home in time for Easter, when Africa managed to stealth its way to the top of the national security agenda. And yet, while he was gone, General Scott Gration visited Darfur to report the absolutely grim truth about Sudan's deteriorating humanitarian situation. A recruitment tape from the Somali extremist group Al-Shabab surfaced this week starring a blue-eyed American jihadist, Abu-Mansur al-Amriki, calling on mothers to send their boys to fight Muslim holy war. Also in the last week, were six armed attacks by pirates whose workplace is the million square miles of open sea beyond the Horn of Africa. Problems in Africa were on a slow simmer this week when finally, they boiled over on the Maersk Alabama.

There is much still to be learned about the taking of the American ship. But it was likely just a matter of time before our number came up in the Indian Ocean's vast shipping lanes. and in Africa. And perhaps inevitable that the "scourge" of piracy would become more so as it became America's problem, too. It is Captain Phillips' misfortune that it came on his able watch. It is also more terrible luck for the millions of recipients of urgent food aid, for whom the cargo of the Alabama was headed. More hunger, more hopelessness and very likely, more piracy. What else is there for them?

This crisis off Somalia will further test new paradigms in diplomacy and international relations. Like terrorists, the pirates are non-state actors, free agents with their own -- probably not political -- agenda. Whom are the FBI interlocutors negotiating with? Do we drop a sack of money on the lifeboat, and hope that Capt. Phillips is returned unharmed, while a couple of pirates return happy and rich to shore or their mother ship and prepare to strike again somewhere else -- tomorrow? What kind of leverage and guarantees do we have in such negotiations? There is no government in Somalia to speak of, and the pirates are self-governing anyway. It is dramatic, challenging - a surprising and odd place for a test of America's strength in the post-Bush world. President Obama wisely kept the details -- if not yet worked out, certainly ongoing -- from the questioning media. If there is a plan in place, it is likely to change -- these negotiations will not be traditional or predictable.

Many interviews over the last days have pointed to the need for stability in Somalia. The State Department's Jun Banda stated in February, "There is no durable solution to the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia without a political solution in Somalia. The lack of security and stability in Somalia is the root cause of the piracy problem." To restore order to Somalia is a huge job, and our attempts to do just that in 2006 largely brought about conditions leading to today's deterioration and lawlessness in the country. Regardless of the national security implications, you have to be deeply optimistic to believe that a failed state can be made whole again. But optimism is our stock-in-trade, so AFRICOM, the US Navy and America's partners in the area are ever hopeful, and mindful of the long, arduous road ahead.

Not only in Somalia. The West coast is more stable politically than the East Coast, though sorely limited in what the Pentagon calls "capacity" (which AFRICOM's mission is to help build). But last year, Nigeria overtook Indonesia for the first time ever in pirate attacks, almost doubling the number from 2007, giving it the second-place spot behind Somalia. It's been almost a month since the last reported pirate attack against one of Nigeria's 3,500 energy installations (most of them of Western companies), but another one will inevitably come. In the Gulf of Guinea, the tactics are frequently the same as off Somalia if the motives are not: fast little skiffs, high-powered weapons, hostage taking and negotiation. But most of the so-called pirate attacks take place in the country's territorial waters or even onshore in the estimated 30,000 square-mile Niger Delta, center of Nigeria's energy-based economy and one of the world's largest and most polluted ecosystems. Militants are fighting for greater regional share in oil revenues, using more violent tactics than pirates on the other coast. But with oil production cut by OPEC and the precipitous drop in the world price of crude oil, human security will worsen, while creating hungrier, more determined, more entrepreneurial and better armed pirates.

Piracy is one of the loudest and most aggressive tactics of the frustrated and disenfranchised, but it is highly lucrative. It will be hard for companies and governments to continue paying these ransoms, and it is risky to retaliate. But the fact that piracy this week finally moved Africa almost to the top of the United States' national security agenda means more broadly that problems there are not as far away as they seem. Darfur, jihadists, piracy, to say nothing of HIV/AIDS, drought and poverty. We ignore Africa's problems at our peril. The question is, diplomatically, where do we start? And then what? The next few days will bring some answers.