Analysis: To Beat Somalia's Pirates, Fix Their Country

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Farah Abdi Warsameh / AP

Armed fighters from the al-Shabab group travel on the back of pickup trucks outside Mogadishu in Somalia

One of the world's worst humanitarian disasters, Islamic terrorism and rampant human trafficking have all failed to draw the world's interest to Somalia. The return of piracy to the high seas, however, has. The Somali pirates have attacked more than 100 vessels in the waters leading to and from the Suez Canal this year, and earned tens of millions of dollars in ransom. Today they are holding 17 ships with around 300 crew members off the Somali coast. And at a weekend security conference organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain, headquarters to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, opinion appeared unanimous: to fix the pirates, fix Somalia. "We haven't been as involved in Somalia as we should have been," Britain's Defence Secretary John Hutton told the BBC. "This is the consequence."

Somalia is a textbook example of the theory of failed states. The idea, as encapsulated by the butterfly that flaps its wings and ends up causing a hurricane on the other side of the world, is that an action in one place, even an apparently insignificant one, can have deep ramifications around the globe. (See TIME's Top 10 news stories of the year.)

Typically, when those actions take place in a failed or failing state — one with no law and little government — the consequences are negative. They include a refugee and disease exodus (such as from Zimbabwe), sex trafficking (Bangladesh and Nepal) and drug-smuggling and terrorism (Afghanistan and Tajikistan). Indonesia, which has a weak government and endemic poverty and also happens to abut another primary sea route, was the world's worst piracy hotspot for a decade, until a couple of years ago, when it was overtaken by Nigeria, which has little law but plenty of poverty and oil platforms.

Now Somalia has overtaken Nigeria as a piracy problem spot, as it claims the title of Ultimate Failed State. It is a haven for Islamic terrorists, currently poised to take Mogadishu and already expanding their operations to neighboring states (for example, killing more than 30 people with five car and suicide bombs at U.N. and foreign government buildings in the autonomous northern regions of Puntland and Somaliland); a departure point for hundreds of thousands of refugees (a refugee camp over the border in Kenya is now the biggest in the world); a center for human trafficking to the Middle East; and a hub of the illegal arms and drugs trade.

All these things are the consequences of non-existent government. All of them can only really be tackled properly when Somalia has a government that is both good and strong. As the French commander of his country's anti-piracy force in the Gulf, Vice-Admiral Gerard Valin, told Agence-France Presse in Bahrain: "We will not end this phenomenon unless we have a Somali government that has the means to act on its territory to fight piracy."

That, unfortunately, is more remote than ever. As the vice-admiral was speaking, the Somali President, Abdullah Yusuf Ahmed, was firing his Prime Minister, Nur Hassan Hussein, the second premier to be dismissed in as many years. Not that the nominal government rules more than a few blocks of Mogadishu. Earlier this year, many of the other members of the Somali government and parliament gave up on their country and decamped to the Kenyan capital Nairobi. (See pictures of Somalia's pirates.)

Add to that the fact that the two last forces to offer anything approaching a stabilizing presence in Somalia — the Ethiopian army and a small African Union peacekeeping force — are expected to withdraw in the next few weeks. (In the case of the Ethiopians, who invaded in late 2006 to topple an Islamist government and who have been accused of atrocities during their stay, whether they have been a force for or against stabilization is hotly debated.)

That leaves the international community with two unappealing options. The short-term fix is to try to neutralize the pirates by pursuing them on land. Hence a U.S. draft proposal authorizing military action inside Somalia currently before the U.N. Security Council. But sending troops into Somalia is fraught with danger, as the American soldiers of Blackhawk Down, and now the Ethiopians, know to their cost. Present day U.S. operations against the Islamists — publicly confined to air strikes, but also including some clandestine fighting on the ground — have killed two significant leaders, including the bomb-maker in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

But, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have also killed civilians and stoked a raging anti-American backlash. In addition, extending the fight against the Islamists to the pirates may make friends of two of the most dangerous groups in Somalia, who until now have been enemies. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates underlined those concerns in Bahrain. "With the level of information we have at the moment, we're not in a position to do that kind of land-based operation," he said, adding any such intervention would need to "minimize collateral damage."

The long-term fix is to build a new Somalia. Nation-building is something the Bush administration initially shied away from in Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to regroup, and came round to in Iraq, with mixed and frequently bloody results. China provides a better model for nation-building in Africa, focusing almost wholly on the continent's commercial potential — and, as a byproduct, the stabilizing effects of poverty alleviation — by pumping billions into infrastructure in war-torn territories such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Angola is now stable, if horribly corrupt; Congo is still at war, but the Chinese investment there has just begun, and the country at least now has an incentive for peace. China, of course, gets a good return on its investment. Angola is now its leading oil supplier globally, while Congo is opening up its mineral riches in return for new roads, railways, hospitals and universities from Beijing. Then again, as the Somali pirates have demonstrated, it often takes an injection of self-interest for the world to want to act.

See pictures of Somalia's modern face of piracy.

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