Ridding Somalia of Pirates: Hard Choices for the West

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Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty Images

Kenyan authorities escort a suspected pirate from the French frigate Nivose, part of the European Union's anti-piracy naval mission off the coast of Somalia

Somali piracy is not a "waterborne disease," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a gathering of more than 60 governments in Brussels last week. The solution to the problem lies on land, in the establishment of a Somali government deemed legitimate by its citizenry and capable of enforcing its writ. World leaders appeared to heed Ban's advice, pledging $213 million in aid to rebuild the Somali government and its security forces. But success in the effort will depend in no small part on foreign powers' avoiding repeats of earlier efforts to reimpose order on the chaos of Somalia — most recently in the course of the Bush Administration's war on terrorism.

Although the dramatic escalation in pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa has helped force Somalia to the top of the international agenda, the pirate problem is of secondary concern to the country's leaders and its neighbors. Instead, their primary focus is on ending nearly 20 years of violence and chaos that began when the country's last solid (albeit brutal and authoritarian) national government collapsed, turning Somalia into an always shifting patchwork of fiefdoms controlled by rival warlords and militias. Those warlords were driven out of Mogadishu in 2006 by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which established a strict law-and-order regime largely welcomed by residents — and which, for the most part, managed to tamp down offshore piracy. But ties between allies of the ICU and al-Qaeda prompted the U.S. to back an Ethiopian invasion to topple the Islamists. The government they propped up, however, proved not only untenable but also unable or unwilling to tackle piracy. Now, a new Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has been formed, which includes much of the old ICU — although not the more radical Shabab youth militia, whose leaders are believed to have ties with al-Qaeda. (See photographs of recent dramatic pirate-hostage rescues.)

Somalia experts warn that while rebuilding viable governance is crucial to stopping the piracy problem, the concerns of the international community can't be the organizing principle of standing up a viable government. The key to success is to make the political process inclusive of as many factions as possible.

"During brief periods when relative calm and stability were established ... the solutions were found inside Somalia, and with little external help," notes Roger Middleton, a Horn of Africa expert at the Chatham House think tank in London. "When the rest of the world decides peace and stability in Somalia is urgent for the well-being of Somalis foremost, it will find partners there eager to try to bring that about."

Today, Somalis looking to restore stability are led by Sheik Sharif Ahmed, who was elected President of the Transitional Federal Government in January and hailed at the Brussels summit as a man with whom the international community can deal. That's a new development. During the middle part of this decade, Sheik Sharif had headed the ICU, toppled with help from the Bush Administration as part of its war-on-terrorism approach to the region. But the Ethiopian occupation simply fueled Somali nationalism, and radicalized the Shabab militia, which broke with the ICU. Now, the world finds itself embracing Sheik Sharif as a moderate by comparison with his Shabab foes.

Donors at the Brussels summit promised Sheik Sharif money to equip and train the 16,000-member national-security and police force he says he needs to restore order in the nation. But a large chunk of the pledged money will also go to a poorly equipped African Union peacekeeping force of around 5,000 men that is resented by Somalis as yet another foreign occupier and which Sheik Sharif wants withdrawn. And the well-funded Shabab, aided by hundreds of foreign jihadists, poses a considerable threat to Sheik Sharif and his government — the overthrow of which was urged on an audiotape attributed to Osama bin Laden last month. Sheik Sharif's government has imposed Islamic Shari'a law, hoping to pull the rug out from under the Shabab by removing one of its key rallying issues.

Given the security stakes, however, the question may be whether the international community is willing to take the political risk of accepting the emergence of a Taliban-like authority in Somalia. Roland Marchal, a Somalia specialist at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris, says the danger may be overblown. "A lot of the designation of who's a radical vs. moderate Islamist is done from outside Somalia, using foreign reasoning, when the only real dangerous forces present are extremist foreign jihadists whom Somalis themselves view as outsiders," Marchal says. "The repeated use of proxies to eradicate or marginalize the 'bad Islamists' has regularly caused ordinary Somalis to support those Islamists as resistance fighters."

Middleton adds that while al-Qaeda once ran training camps in southern Somalia, its extremely rigid brand of Islam wound up alienating recruits and the traditionally moderate Muslim Somalis from its cause. Like Marchal, he views the Shabab as less about extremist Islam than an expression of Islamicized Somali nationalism.

"You can't keep screaming 'You're al-Qaeda' at people who aren't," Marchal warns. "To get to a solution, the transitional government and international community have to start dealing with all the actors that regular Somalis identify as part of the nation's life."

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See pictures of modern-day pirates.