April 14, 2009

Thoughts on Piracy...

...from a long-time friend of the blog.

Resistance Daddy,

First, on Saturday, I thought firing three shots from a rolling platform and getting three kills on another rolling platform was about as likely as shooting missiles out of the sky with a laser on a 747. I mean, come on, that's frigging awesome-about as much justification as is needed for the "executive assassination ring" aka JSOC.

Anyway, now that the chest thumping will be over by the end of the 24 hour news cycle, the real questions should begin. I'd offer your readership a framework and look forward to their thoughts.

First, as bad ass as that tactical action was, simply doing it again will not necessarily be possible nor would it be sufficient. A tactical problem was solved involving one hostage, three pirates, a US destroyer, and a disabled lifeboat. Already the pirates are musing on lessons learned in the media. Are we inside the pirates OODA loop? Are they so static and unchanging that we can kill our way out of the problem? That piracy has actually increased in spite of similar actions by the French and Indians suggests otherwise.

The area off of Somalia where this piracy is taking place is about the size of Spain and offers coastline about the length of the Eastern seaboard. Intelligence driven operations in this area seem to be just about impossible--an area of interest of this size seems to offer little in the way of enabling us to determine where and when pirates will strike.

Given the state of the state in Somalia, piracy is essentially a fungible "commodity." Deterrence against one group at one moment makes it unlikely that others will stop. Nor does it appear that there are so few possible ports that a punitive action against one would be effective against all--particularly as it would be hard to discriminate between legitimate pirate targets and fishermen, etc. I imagine the outcry against such action in the West would preclude its continuation for long enough to be of much use. Nor do tactical successes like today's seem to offer much of a deterrent--after all, earlier this week, French commandos did much the same thing and pirates have continued at their normal pace. I imagine that the pirates' after action report would focus on the wisdom of sending four men after a ship and how to ensure the crew is unable to disable it (or what to do to crew members themselves if they take such actions)--maybe they'll just tug the thing next time. Certainly, getting to shore, as they knew, would have been a game changer (think hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s, except with less government, if that's possible)--and they had at least eight hours according to news reports in which to do so. I also imagine that collective punishment against the Somali population on the sea coast would enable Al Qaeda's influence in the country to a greater degree.

The New York Times reports today on a current push to essentially arm merchant boats. Others have pushed for arming US merchants regardless of what other nations do. Is this really a practical solution? What percentage of US trade that passes through the area passes on US flagged ships? How much of what passes through the area is tied to the globalized commodity market? If grand amounts of oil are held up in the area, it makes little difference to the US economy whether they were bound for the US or anywhere else or what flag the ship bears--it would drive up US oil prices at a particularly inconvenient time. If more ships are armed in response to the pirates, is the problem of determining a legitimate ship vise a pirate ship even more difficult (I'm not sure they will all do us the favor of hoisting the Jolly Roger)?

Before we talk about how to defeat pirates, I think it would also be useful to discuss how piracy in this area affects our national interest. If piracy were to be allowed to go on unfettered, how much would US trade and the US economy be affected? How much would our image be affected? How much would the world trade regime upon which our hegemony is (at least partially) built be affected? Ground pounders like myself tend to forget that the US' dominant position is built in a large way on its naval force that enables trade and allows us to move our ground forces and goods where we wish.

It is within the context of defining our national interest that we can discuss what exactly we wish to do to pirates and piracy in these waters and how we wish to do it. The range of options certainly seems significant. Can we, for instance, simply have shippers avoid the areas where piracy is taking place? Ransom payment seems a major issue--are ransom payers essentially funding piracy, and can there ships and cargo subsequently be taken or destroyed as the illegal fruits of the trade? This certainly would change the cost-benefit calculation of those who consider ransom payments. On the other hand, could we kill two birds with one stone through some sort of naval unconventional warfare--arming, equipping, and training (and paying) some of the clans to go after pirates (you know, like Anbar, except in the sea)? You can't believe in saints if you are to take this approach. Are there legitimate grievances (definitely) that can be addressed cost-effectively (no idea) that would prevent pirates from being launched from these shores against international shipping? Can merchant convoys be organized and armed to move more effectively with less risk at less cost?

Obviously second- and third-order effects are of prime importance given AQ's presence in Somalia. If the costs of the status quo are very high, or if the low cost solutions will enable AQ and present significant threats to US security, the perhaps nation building of some sort in Somalia, extremely expensive in blood and money for sure, will be a necessary or unavoidable decision.

So the questions we need to be considering right now boil down to this: the cost of action versus the status quo (and perhaps by extension the cost in dollars and opportunity of the current task force), which ships count as "US" ships (as a majority of US-bound and US-derived cargo is not sailed on US-flagged ships) in terms of our national interest, the relationships between our decisions and the war against AQ, the additional difficulties in identifying legal commerce over piracy if more ships are armed, and other strategic options which might be available to us.

So what does your erudite and brilliant readership believe that actions against the pirates should look like, toward what ends, at what costs, and with what risks? I look forward to their thoughts...