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The Piracy Problem

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Somali pirates don't want to bring down the United States and the entire Western world. The just want money.

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 3:22 PM EDT

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Sometimes, it seems as if all U.S. global geopolitics boils down to little more than a war for money within the Pentagon. In the best of times, each armed service still has to continually maintain and upgrade its various raisons d'être for the billions of dollars being poured into it; each has to fight—something far more difficult in economic hard times—to maintain or increase its share of the budgetary pie. The remarkable thing is that we are now in the worst of economic times and yet, for one more year, the Pentagon can still pretend that it just ain't so. After eight years in which the Bush administration broke the bank militarily, an already vastly bloated Pentagon budget will miraculously rise once more, even if by a relatively modest 4%, in the coming fiscal year. But don't for a second think that the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy aren't already scrambling for toeholds suitable for a more precarious future.

Our unchallenged imperial Navy rules the sea lanes of the planet. Its 11 aircraft carrier battle groups, those vast water-borne military bases, roam the oceans of the world without opposition. But there's a problem. Right now, as John Feffer, co-director of the invaluable website Foreign Policy In Focus and TomDispatch regular, points out below, the American war of note is on the ground in (and in the air over) the Af-Pak theater of operations, which leaves the Navy scrambling for meaning—that is, future money.

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Right now, the Army and the Marines are getting the headlines and the attention, which could mean the lion's share of future loot, as they recalibrate based on a counterinsurgency future. (One, two, many Afghanistans...) So, thought of in naval terms, the Somali pirates—that is, an actual threat at sea—have arrived just in the nick of time, providing an excuse for a new wave of potential expenditures aimed at creating the equivalent of counterinsurgency warfare at sea. In fact, think of those pirates as just the leading edge of a wave of new naval missions involving various forms of low-intensity operations afloat: not just piracy but also "seaborne terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug smuggling, and human trafficking" for which naval planners and boosters are already starting to beat the drums.

And of course, no new mission should lack its preferably expensive, high-tech weaponry: in this case, the Littoral Combat Ship, a mighty pile of money in a relatively small package. A third the size of a destroyer, this $500 million craft is meant to patrol the planetary shallows, even if it has so far proved a production-plagued nightmare. Nonetheless, Secretary of Defense Gates has just modestly upped the craft's production—and there's more to come from Navy "reformers." Count on a new array of smaller, shallow-water vessels that could be formed into little armadas already termed by one naval officer "Influence Squadrons."

Right now, of course, unmanned aerial drones are the hottest thing in the new Air Force counterinsurgency arsenal (and the Navy's commissioning them as well), so how about unmanned robo-boats? Don't worry: they're already being considered as part of the new Navy mission. The sea's the limit, so to speak. Tom

Monsters vs. Aliens

Why Terrorists and Pirates Are Not About to Team Up Any Time Soon
By John Feffer

In the comic books, bad guys often team up to fight the forces of good. The Masters of Evil battle the Avengers superhero team. The Joker and Scarecrow ally against Batman. Lex Luthor and Brainiac take on Superman.

And the Somali pirates, who have dominated recent headlines with their hijacking and hostage-taking, join hands with al-Qaeda to form a dynamic evil duo against the United States and our allies. We're the friendly monsters—a big, hulking superpower with a heart of gold—and they're the aliens from Planet Amok.

In the comic-book imagination of some of our leading pundits, the two headline threats against U.S. power are indeed on the verge of teaming up. The intelligence world is abuzz with news that radical Islamists in Somalia are financing the pirates and taking a cut of their booty. Given this "bigger picture," Fred Iklé urges us simply to "kill the pirates." Robert Kaplan waxes more hypothetical. "The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists," he writes. "Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard."

Chaotic conditions in Somalia and other countries, anti-state fervor, the mediating influence of Islam, the lure of big bucks: these factors are allegedly pushing the two groups of evildoers into each other's arms. "Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, 'for private ends,'" writes Douglas Burgess in a New York Times op-ed urging a prosecutorial coupling of terrorism and piracy.

We've been here before. Since 2001, in an effort to provide a distinguished pedigree for the Global War on Terror and prove the superiority of war over diplomacy, conservative pundits and historians have regularly tried to compare al-Qaeda to the Barbary pirates of the 1800s. They were wrong then. And with the current conflating of terrorism and piracy, it's déjà vu all over again.

Misreading Piracy

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Somali pirates have no grand desire to bring down the United States and the entire Western world. They have no intention of establishing some kind of piratical caliphate. Despite Burgess's claims, they are not bent on homicide and destruction. They simply want money.

Most of the pirates are former fisherman dislodged from their traditional source of income by much larger pirates, namely transnational fishing conglomerates. When a crippled Somali government proved incapable of securing its own coastline, those fishing companies moved in to suck up the rich catch in local waters. "To make matters worse," Katie Stuhldreher writes in The Christian Science Monitor, "there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters. That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s."

Despite their different ideologies—al-Qaeda has one, the pirates don't—it has become increasingly popular to assert a link between radical Islam and the Somali freebooters. The militant Somali faction al-Shabab, for instance, is allegedly in cahoots with the pirates, taking a cut of their money and helping with arms smuggling in order to prepare them for their raids. The pirates "are also reportedly helping al-Shabab develop an independent maritime force so that it can smuggle foreign jihadist fighters and 'special weapons' into Somalia," former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn has recently argued.

In fact, the Islamists in Somalia are no fans of piracy. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had some rough control over Somalia before Ethiopia invaded the country in 2006, took on piracy, and the number of incidents dropped. The more militant al-Shabab, which grew out of the ICU and became an insurgent force after the Ethiopian invasion, has denounced piracy as an offense to Islam.

The lumping together of Islamists and pirates obscures the only real solution to Somalia's manifold problems. Piracy is not going to end through the greater exercise of outside force, no matter what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may think. (In a recent column lamenting the death of diplomacy in an "age of pirates," he recommended a surge in U.S. money and power to achieve success against all adversaries.) Indeed, the sniper killing of three pirates by three U.S. Navy Seals has, to date, merely spurred more ship seizures and hostage-taking.

Simply escalating militarily and "going to war" against the Somali pirates is likely to have about as much success as our last major venture against Somalia in the 1990s, which is now remembered only for the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. Rather, the United States and other countries must find a modus vivendi with the Islamists in Somali to bring the hope of political order and economic development to that benighted country.

Diplomacy and development, however lackluster they might seem up against a trio of dead-eyed sharpshooters, are the only real hope for Somalia and the commercial shipping that passes near its coastline.

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