The problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean appears nowhere near resolution, at least not in the foreseeable short term.
Somalia-based pirate gangs have honed their skills, extended their reach and operate at will, seemingly undeterred by the aggressive naval patrols mounted by warships deployed in these waters.
An array of counter-piracy and deterrence measures — from violent armed attacks on suspected pirate skiffs and motherships to arrests, trials and imprisonment of suspects in Kenya and other non-Somali jurisdictions — have proved less effective than hoped.
It is clear the strategy so strenuously pushed by the Western naval alliance over the past two years is not meeting expectations. The reason for this ineffectiveness is obvious: The response has remained a predominantly military one, albeit increasingly tempered by legal, political and diplomatic efforts.
Since 2009, there has been a discernible shift in international thinking about the problem. The official policy lexicon has changed and, rhetorically at least, everyone now subscribes to the idea of a “multi-pronged” strategy based on “land-based” interventions, consciously targeted at tackling the root causes instead of the symptoms.
Sadly, evidence on the ground suggests that not much has changed, and the heavy emphasis on military and security responses remains intact.
Despite the rhetoric and the subtle variations in nuance and detail, the dominant tendency has been to militarise the problem.
Contrary to claims, the counter-piracy strategy is dominated by a militarist mindset, impervious to evidence that military response is failing to effectively deal with a problem that is complex and inextricably tied to the prolonged crisis in Somalia.
Military might has demonstrably failed to deter piracy. Extensive and robust patrols, and aggressive pursuits of suspect vessels, have inadvertently displaced the problem.
Pirate gangs have simply shifted to less tightly patrolled waters farther from the Somali coast. More troubling, military pressure is unintentionally improving the adaptability, versatility and resilience of the pirate gangs.
With ransom payments now at an all-time high, they are using the financial windfall to upgrade and modernise.
The pirates’ greatest tactical advantage over the enemy is time. They know well that the naval deployment is time-bound and at some point there will be a drawdown, whether because of an adverse shift in domestic public opinion or, as is most likely, budgetary constraints, not to mention the outbreak of another global crisis.
Rather than challenge the navies, they can simply opt to outwait them — disbanding temporarily and retreating to their land bases to lie low.
Indeed, credible evidence suggests some may have already taken this route, or are in the process of branching off into other, less lucrative, criminal rackets like people smuggling and kidnap-for-ransom.
The prospect of such a tactical retreat is, of course, only plausible if military operations do not extend to the land — as some fear — and if the clan-based pirate support networks survive.
If a temporary, tactical retreat is a viable possibility, we should be sceptical of some of the positive statistics routinely churned out by military officials to prove that pirate attacks are on a downward trend, by implication demonstrating the efficacy of the naval operations.
To put it differently, to what extent is such a reduction, if true, attributable to a lull induced by a tactical retreat rather than a decisive defeat?
Whatever the case, suggestions of a tipping point in the war against piracy are premature, as long as military pressure is not consciously combined with and consistently augmented by more crucial, non-military, land-based interventions aimed at bringing about a sustainable long-term solution.
The prospect of a neat solution achieved with ease and at minimal cost on the high seas is tantalising, but simply unachievable: There are no short-cuts to dealing with the piracy problem emanating from Somalia.
The global community must either embark on the messy, arduous and complicated work of fixing a failed state, or remain stuck in a rut, simply tinkering at the edges of a problem that now risks getting out of hand.
While it may not appear immediately obvious, international support for the fragile, often clan-based entities in central and northern Somalia is the best means to banish the piracy menace from Somalia.
Rashid Abdi is Horn of Africa Analyst at the International Crisis Group. This paper was presented at the launch of the Maritime Counterpiracy Conference. [email protected]