Fighting Pirates Is No War Game

A 41-year Marine vet with a good deal of experience in “unconventional” war tactics — he commanded the team that handily defeated U.S. forces in a seminal war game — explains to Foreign Policy’s Elizabeth Dickinson how he would advise taking on the pirates wreaking havoc off the coast of Somalia:

I guess your first question would be: Am I going to eliminate it at sea, or am I going to try to go to the places where these pirates have their home bases and their forts? There’s a pirates nest, I guess; where are they? If you can separate them from their ports or wherever they hide out, then obviously you get them before they even come out. The difficulty you have there is what you have with most insurgent-type activities: sorting out the good from the bad. You know that [the pirates] go into a certain port, but trying to hit them without collateral damage is always a challenge.

It’s [also] not a strictly military calculation because you have commercial interests who are worried about the cargo they are carrying. They’re worrying about insurance rates. If they take on the nature of a naval vessel–that is, they arm themselves–then what happens to their insurance rates? The other side of the factor is, if the pirates know you’re armed, then they’re liable to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s not thinking in terms of a straight head-on-head between two fighting vessels, but what are the folks that own these either cruise liners or commercial ships thinking about.

Both of Lt. Gen. Van Riper’s points are often overlooked in the conundrum of how to stop Somali piracy. First, even the key recommendation given by the most astute commentators — to address the problem at its roots, in the anarchy and wholly disrupted economy on shore — is severely complicated by the same unexpectedly tricky issue of actually identifying who is a pirate that can frustrate at-sea anti-piracy measures. Second, this is at its heart an economic more than a military matter. Fighting pirates — even if they shouldn’t be considered terrorists, as Kevin at Opinio Juris admonishes, because of their lack of political agenda — is akin to fighting terrorists in that the military fight itself is necessary but not sufficient; until the deeper economic grievances compelling poor Somalis to this unacceptable swashbuckling are addressed, a quick and easy buck on the high seas will remain worth the danger.