Now that the hostage situation off the Somali coast has ended, America must begin a frank, lengthy debate on the solution to piracy. Recent events cannot give irregular weight to the decision. As relieving as Richard Phillips’s safety is, a nation should never go to war over one man.
Somalia, the most failed state on Earth, is too dangerous to dive in.
Of all the options, doing nothing is the least palatable. America has rejected the idea and the international community cannot idly stand by as a major waterway is threatened. Piracy was an American problem for a day, but it is the world’s problem in the long-term.
Since non-action is unacceptable, naval patrol is the next phase. Criticized for his silence, President Obama made himself, “very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region and to achieve that goal, we're going to have to continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks.”
However, the Navy has admitted that little can be done to end piracy so long as Somalia continues to drown. SEAL operations can succeed in individual situations, but they cannot end a social phenomena. Drones could take out pirates across the sea, but they’ll keep coming. An increase in warships could also weaken American security where they were redeployed from.
America has come to realize that naval action alone is a short step above doing nothing. For this reason, some officials in the government, as well as conservatives like John Bolton, have been advocating a land approach; the UN has authorized a similar plan. Herein lies the double bind.
America and the world now understand that Somalia’s troubles at sea are bred on land. As with ants or wasps, taking out the hive instead of the individual is common sense. If piracy is to be ended for good, land operations are necessary - military as well as economic and social action.
Except Somalia is a hostile place for Americans. Memories of 1993 are not pleasant. Several analysts on cable news have claimed that Black-hawk Down is a thing of the past, that current American technology is far more sophisticated. But false information led to the inadvertent killings of Somali tribal elders, fanning flames of extremism months before the battle of Mogadishu. Civilians in Afghanistan have recently died from similar flawed intelligence.
Somalia is a land where enemies are made quickly, easily, and numerously. Even if American soldiers were to come proclaiming peace and assistance, the flag they bear on their shoulders would become a target. It took less than 24 hours for Al-Shabaab, the main militant group in Somalia, to fire retaliatory mortars at Congressman Don Payne’s plane. Several other “pirate chiefs” have also declared revenge on America.
Any military action in Somalia may be considered a declaration of war. Whether Predators, special operations, military advisers or Army soldiers, all options come with high political risk. It’s tempting to view Somalia in a vacuum because the problem needs fixing, but political ramifications likely outweigh military obstacles. Somalia is a ming vase.
Worse still, America lacks comprehensive knowledge of the ground, the players and their connection to piracy. Officials have acknowledged that since the phenomena is relatively new, much work remains in connecting the dots between warlords, militants, “terrorists,” and pirates. In the recent Harper's magazine, Ken Silverstein’s quotes a former CIA official who complained that America has, “limited, ineffective intelligence operations... no presence at all in Somalia.”
One of the most ancient rules of war: don’t go to war with incomplete information of the enemy. Iraq is vivid proof.
Piracy demands a real response, but America must be vigilant of escalating the conflict beyond its control. Though American military power appears necessary, it could fuel the conflict instead. With two ongoing wars, America can’t afford to wade too deep into Somalia.