What Barack Obama Can Learn From Pirates

The iconic pirate sword has been swapped for AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades. The recent hijacking of an American flagged ship with an American crew off the coast of Somalia reminded the world that piracy alive and flourishing. The Easter weekend tactical success of a four man SEAL element, who eliminated the pirates and successfully rescued the captain of the ship, was a real life Hollywood ending; the last scene where the captain safely drinks a beer (Budweiser in my mind) aboard the US Navy ship would be too clichéd to write in a script, had it not actually gone down that way. As a former Navy SEAL, I am proud and impressed at the ability of my colleagues to achieve what we call tactical resolution. It was a tough scenario and in the end our premier maritime Special Operations Force prevailed. However, it would be a mistake for the Obama administration to think it has found a model for defeating the piracy problem plaguing the Horn of Africa.

In the last few months the pirates have taken control of dozens of ships including a Saudi chemical ship and a Ukrainian vessel loaded with tanks and armament. The subsequent demand and payment of millions of dollars of ransom changed the image of piracy in the publics eye; the image of a Disney swashbuckler was replaced with pictures of high-speed boats and armed sea-faring gangs. This new image and the recent tactical success have duped much of the international community into believing that combating piracy is a naval force issue. So far, President Obama has continued the Bush administration approach of sending a 3000-man warship to fight a four-man dinghy. This treatment fundamentally neglects the real pathology behind piracy on the high seas.

Somalia is a country in name only. It is the absence of the rule of law in Somalia that has allowed piracy to rise to the current level of international crisis. The US has a long complex history with Somalia. Since 1991 and the ill-fated US intervention in it's humanitarian crisis, Somalia has been in a protracted state of conflict and civil war. The lone exception to almost two decades of violence in Somalia was a brief period in 2006 when a group known as the Council of Islamic Courts took over much of southern Somalia and established a brief period of law and security. The price of peace in Somalia was high as the Islamists raised red flags in much of the rest of the world because of their fundamentalism and sympathetic leanings towards Al-Qaeda.

In 2006 I traveled to Somalia. I tentatively explored the city with 15-armed guards and talked to fisherman who claimed they turned to piracy because of overfishing. I shopped for AK-47s at a large outdoor gun bazaar where you could buy a Kalashnikov easier than you could buy lettuce. I also spoke with the controversial leadership of the Council of Islamic Courts. What I observed was a complicated trade-off between a governing group with echoes of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the improved sense of order it had brought to a lawless society.

The tenure of the Islamic courts was short lived. Ethiopian forces, backed and encouraged by US policy and military, invaded Somalia and toppled the Islamists in Mogadishu. The US backed Ethiopian forces quickly removed the Islamists. It soon became apparent (in an all too familiar way) that there was a plan for war but no plan for peace. Somalia quickly returned to chaos and became once again what in military parlance is called an ungoverned space, fertile for modern day piracy.

Prosecution of the war on terror dominated the US foreign policy focus in Somalia under the Bush administration, essentially waging a shadow war in the region in order to combat the reported existence of Al-Qaeda. What the Bush administration didn't do, and what the Obama administration has yet to do, is make any significant strides to create a successful system of governance in a country in desperate need of order. In short, we fired the only sheriff in town and now the inmates run the asylum.

There are painful results of the collapse in Somalia. It triggered a massive refugee crisis (almost 700,000 refugees fled Mogadishu last year, see my report The Beach of Death). Many NGOs are calling this the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The collapse also created a safe haven for both Al-Qaeda operatives and the pirates that are sending shockwaves through the shipping world. The pirates are, of course, criminals, run by clan based militias and ransoming off hijacked cargoes for millions of dollars. However, it is the failure to create state solutions in Somalia that has allowed these pirates to operate with impunity on the high seas.

There are almost two and a half million acres of water in the Gulf of Aden, and tens of thousands of merchant vessels transit the straights annually. The tyranny of this geography makes it virtually impossible to effectively patrol the waterways in order to prevent piracy. Despite the ad-hoc coalition of multiple Navies in the area of operations (including the US 5th fleet out of Bahrain), pirates are free to roam an ungovernable space because they operate from an ungoverned space. Every time a pirate takes a ship in the Gulf of Aden, it is a less a reminder of the anarchy of the sea then a reminder of our failed policy in the east African state. The Obama administration has inherited an issue that that has plagued US foreign policy since the failed mission in the country in 1991. Unless President Obama can chart a new course in Somalia, and help create sustainable long-term solutions of governance in the Horn of Africa, pirates, terrorists, and a host of non-state actors will continue to force the rest of the world to walk a policy plank in the region.

Kaj Larsen's work on Modern Day Pirates and his report from Mogadishu can be seen on Current TV and Current.com.

Kaj Larsen is an award-winning journalist for Current TV. He is a former US Navy SEAL, and an executive board member of the Center for Citizen Leadership, a non-profit dedicated to mentoring wounded veterans into Public Service. He holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.