The celebrating over Sunday's daring rescue of Richard Phillips, the ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates, didn't last too long at the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged on Monday that rescuing hostages in this case, Navy snipers took out Phillips' three captors is only a stopgap way of dealing with the pirates now sailing the Gulf of Aden. "There is no purely military solution to it," Gates told an audience of the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va. "It is a serious international problem, and it's probably going to get worse." (See pictures of the U.S. and France fighting the Somali pirates.)
There's been talk in the Pentagon of dispatching more warships to the region to beef up protective patrols. And President Barack Obama took a tough stance on Monday, saying, "I want to be very clear that we are resolved to halt the rise of piracy in that region." But Gates made it clear that the real solution isn't on the high seas. Instead, it's back along the Somali coast in the impoverished villages and towns that the pirates call home. "As long as you've got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small," he said, "there's really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids."
Responsibility for changing that equation belongs to the new U.S. African Command (Africom), set up 18 months ago to help provide security to permit the rebuilding of shattered nations like Somalia. But don't look for quick action. "We do not have a military presence in Somalia," the command's chief, Army General William Ward, told Congress last month. In fact, the military is in no rush to head back to that lawless nation in the Horn of Africa. President Clinton's Pentagon was first bloodied there when 18 soldiers died in a 1993 firefight memorialized in Black Hawk Down. As a reminder of the volatile environment, local insurgents on Monday fired mortar rounds at a private plane ferrying U.S. Congressman Donald Payne out of Mogadishu after he had visited with the head of the country's weak new transitional government. (See pictures of the brazen pirates of Somalia.)
Even if the Pentagon had the stomach for this kind of fight, the confused command structure for the region would make it hard to succeed. You might think, after all, that Africom would be front and center in battling the piracy now rampant off Somalia's coast. But in fact Africom deals only with African territory, and not the seas surrounding it. Those are monitored by U.S. Central Command, also responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This disconnect Centcom if by sea, Africom if by land highlights the challenge facing the Pentagon as it tries to grapple with 21st century pirates who thrive amid chaos.
Africom's only role in battling pirates is helping Centcom hand over the captured ones 130 so far this year to East African nations for trial. Africom still has a lot of kinks to work out. At that House hearing on March 19, Ward acknowledged that he has only a "very small command" headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany to deal with Africa, and not a soul on Somali soil. But things are getting better. "Every day improvements are made," Ward said. "I count it a victory when I can pick up the phone or send an e-mail and it goes to the same address, and we are getting more and more that way." (See the top 10 audacious acts of piracy.)
The growing piracy problem highlights Gates' smarts it was only a week ago that he boosted the Navy's buy of the small and fast Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) from two to three next year, with a total planned buy of 55. The defense chief termed the LCS a "key capability for presence, stability and counterinsurgency operations in coastal regions." With its ability to sail into shallow waters, an LCS vessel can chase pirates into places bigger warships could never go. The LCS is "an ideal platform" for unconventional Navy missions, including "counterpiracy operations," Rear Admiral Victor Guillory, director of the Navy's surface-warfare division, told a House panel on March 10. But at 400 feet in length and $500 million each and with initial production plagued by problems the Navy is not going to be able to buy enough to stamp out piracy anytime soon.
The pirates, largely from lawless coastal Somali towns, have basically turned the heavily traveled route through the Gulf of Aden into a toll road that shippers' insurance firms have been willing to pay for (up to $3 million for a single vessel). About 20,000 merchant ships traverse the waterway each year; there have already been 74 attacks and 15 hijackings in 2009, compared with 111 attacks last year. The pirates generally want cash, not trouble. They've treated their hostages well, and violence has been rare. All of that changed, of course, last week when a quartet of Somalis seized Phillips from the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama. In the wake of the U.S. action, some pirates and Somali warlords have pledged to take revenge on some of the more than 200 international sailors currently being held captive on the seas. (See a brief history of pirates.)
Somalia's extreme poverty and lack of effective central government make it an ideal breeding ground for piracy, and the Cold War's end helped make it possible. Like Afghanistan, Somalia was for decades a rope in the tug-of-war between the Soviet Union and the U.S., later abandoned and left to rot as the superpowers' rivalry ebbed. It's the latest warning that the 21st century's dangers are more likely to come from failed states and their desperate young men rather than modern militaries boasting flotillas of warships, formations of tanks and fleets of aircraft.