Fighting Piracy: Coordinated Action Still Missing

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Armed pirates guard French hostages aboard the sailboat Tanit

If Europe occasionally winces at accusations that it is not pulling its weight in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, it has been prouder of its take-charge role in combatting Somalia's pirates. However, much like in the Afghan war, that effort appears to be floundering in the face of a relentless, quick-to-adapt, resurgent enemy — despite successes like Sunday's dramatic rescue of Richard Phillips, the American captain held hostage since April 8 by defiant Somali pirates.

Led by France and the U.K., Europe's fight against piracy off the East African coast has been a major priority, and considerable naval assets have been supplied. France, Britain and other European nations have co-authored U.N. resolutions authorizing force to combat Somali pirates. And France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands have all contributed ships alongside the U.S. to the Combined Task Force 150, whose mission includes preventing piracy off the Horn of Africa. In operations similar to Sunday's rescue of the Maersk Alabama captain by U.S. Navy SEALs, France's navy commandos have stormed at least three captive crafts to free French nationals being held hostage — including the April 10 raid of a sailboat whose crew of five had been taken several days before. On Saturday, meanwhile, a Spanish frigate intercepted six presumed pirates in an arms-laden boat as it headed toward a Panamanian merchant vessel. (See pictures of the Somali pirates.)

But for all that action and resolve, Europe's efforts have proven no more effective in eradicating the region's piracy than have those of the U.S. or other African nations.

The rescue of Phillips, after all, was simply an effort to play catch-up: snatching back human bounty that pirates had already made off with. Just a day before, pirates had captured another vessel, an Italian tugboat, in the Gulf of Aden — bringing the total of high-seas abductions this year to 65, compared with 164 for all of 2008 and 2009. By Sunday, the tugboat's captors had reportedly gotten the Italian craft to port in Somalia and taken its crew of 16 to shore — a return to land that leaves the pirates virtually invulnerable to any outside offensives to free hostages or seize vessels.

That was just the situation the U.S. wanted to avoid in rescuing Phillips, and the French hoped to bypass on Friday, when navy commandos stormed the sailboat Tanit. Two pirates and the skipper of the craft were killed in a shoot-out. Despite the risk to the crew members, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had personally approved the raid once all efforts to negotiate their release — including a ransom payment — had been refused by the pirates, who insisted that they be allowed to sail to shore.

The spike in vessels attacked over the past week — and since the beginning of the year — has come even though NATO has redoubled its patrols off the Horn of Africa. Although Europe's Operation Atlanta was dispatched last fall to relieve NATO's flotilla in the region, the alliance has since decided to roll out a new naval policing force known as Allied Protector — which largely serves the same function as Europe's operation yet is independent of it. Indeed, some experts say, these military efforts are fruitless without a well-coordinated antipirate strategy.

"The two separate missions won't cooperate as they should. They will needlessly duplicate already expensive effort, and the resulting disarray might even give pirates the upper hand," Bjoern Seibert, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, writes in Foreign Policy magazine. "The E.U. and NATO must decide what their true goal is in the Gulf of Aden: to end piracy or to win top honors for military strength. If they choose the prior, they should consolidate their separate efforts into a single operation."

Perhaps, but some officials say failure to quash Somali pirates is far from just an organizational problem. "You're talking about people who have everything to gain from piracy because they already decided they had nothing to lose taking it up," says a French diplomat who asked not to be named, referring to the dire poverty many Somalis face. "Meanwhile, they're fearless, apparently growing in number, and they learn more from each of our interceptions or raids. We're determined to beat them, but they can be formidable."

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