May 31, 2012

The great Kiss-Off

The air strike on Somali soil last month by EU forces - a first- has been hailed as some kind of strategic breakthrough against piracy across the world. Helicopter gunships struck pirate locations in the district of Harardhere from the air, destroying a few speedboats and  stepladders, and, say one or two reports, some fuel stockpiles. EU NAVFOR was quick to point out there were no casualties on the ground. Somali pirates were equally quick to threaten, angrily and within days of the strike, that they would execute crew they were holding hostage (that total about three hundred and twenty, mainly Asian, according to probably underplayed official numbers) if they are attacked again. The Western attack received rave reviews from around the world; the pirate threats against crews- fully foreseen by EUNAVFOR, I will wager- went largely ignored. 

The discovery of huge gas reserves off East Africa has, as I pointed out in 'The Mozambique mystique' published here two months ago, added a new element to the' fight against piracy.'  Navies, protecting commercial shipping in transit, are changing tactics as they begin to protect commercial but stationary gas fields.  The UN resolution that formed the basis for this month's land attacks on Somalia has to be seen in that context. 

There is another pattern here for anybody who cares to see it. For roughly two years now, countries across the world, whether oriental or occidental, have collectively decided that the safety of crews- hostages or not- is secondary. With contempt for crews' lives, navies have often strafed and shelled mother ships or sometimes launched commando style operations where crew have been killed or injured in the crossfire. I submit that nobody in EUNAVFOR is surprised at the threats to hostages that they would have been daft not to have anticipated, and I will wager, once again, that nobody in EUNAVFOR or NATO will be surprised if some hostages are executed if these strikes continue. Piracy allows Western navies to expand presence in the region- their strategic goal. And- even though these were EU strikes - President Obama loves drone attacks and so much of Europe will have to fall in line with US diktat. This was not a drone attack but that is the general way things will go, especially if President Dronobama wins a second term in office.

In any case, the 'catch and release' policy of the past will give way to a much more aggressive stance against piracy in future. We will see fewer incidents like that involving a British frigate last year that captured a group of pirates and later let them go after feeding them halal food, providing them cigarettes and nicotine patches and checking if the pirates were medically all right. (Contrast this with the treatment many crew are given even after years of captivity. In many cases, even their wages are not paid.) Wemay well see lethal attacks on pirates on land; hang the threats of execution of hostage crews. We will see, as we always have, robust protection of commercial interests and a simultaneous near total apathy when it comes to protection of the lives of commercial ships' crews.

If that is what is happening, and if we are to disregard crew security, a better alternative to drip-drip small airstrikes would be the following strategy- to be implemented asap: 

a)      Rescind the ISPS Code
b)      Make armed guards mandatory on all ships passing through piracy regions.
c)       Launch simultaneous attacks on all ships held for ransom and all known locations where crew hostages are being held on land. Objective: free the crews or let them die in the crossfire, once and for all. One way or another. All or nothing.
d)      Attack all pirate controlled vessels or mother ships at sea. Let hostage crews either die or be rescued.
e)      After all this, go hell for leather after pirates wherever they are, including in Somalia. Do not forget the financiers and others living abroad, including in the West. Do not ignore banking and non-banking routes that money-launder for them, including in the financial capitals of the world.
f)       If the pirates hide amongst villagers on the Somali coast, as I expect that they will, kill everybody there. Like in AfPak. Like with hostage sailors.

There will be no big outcry about the slaughter of seamen if my tongue-in-cheek recommendations are followed, if that is the fear.The ruckus will die away quickly, because as we know, seamen do not count and dead seamen count least of all. As for those innocent Somali villagers, occidental forces can do the AfPak type spin doctoring to manage fallout. War against terra and all that. They have had a lot of practice.

Many have fawned over the 'firm resolve' displayed by the EU; one or two commentators have even called the airstrikes a 'game changer.' I don't know about that, but I do know that it is seamen who are usually the game in this kind of game. 

EUNAVFOR, NATO and other military forces around the world may think, as they sit protected in their destroyers and frigates with arsenals at their disposal, that they are putting an end to piracy. That the war will be won with this new UN resolution. That everybody will live happily ever after. 

Almost everybody will, I guess. But hardly forever, because military forces will have to do the same thing in the Niger delta and at other, yet unknown parts of the world in future. They will do this at the expense of - and with a contemptuous disregard for-seafarer lives. At least acknowledge that, EUNAVFOR. Acknowledge that you have thought the escalation through.

Because I am quite sure that before you meet prince charming, you will have to kiss- and kill in the crossfire- a lot of us toads. That may well be the better alternative for you. Imagine what will happen to the 'career of choice'- and world trade- if Somali clips of crew torture start appearing on YouTube.


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