Should ground troops hunt pirates in Somalia?

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 15, 2008 

NAIROBI, Kenya — A Bush administration proposal to allow foreign forces to go ashore into Somalia to hunt the country's notorious pirates is getting a cool reception from U.S. military leaders, regional analysts and some Somali officials.

The proposal — which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to put forward Tuesday at the United Nations Security Council — is the boldest yet aimed at stopping the pirates, who've hijacked 55 ships this year, secured tens of millions of dollars in ransoms and kneecapped maritime trade between Europe and Asia.

Somalia's long East African coastline is a lawless stretch of empty beaches and mountain hollows, and experts think that foreign forces lack the military intelligence to carry out well-targeted land attacks. They warn that civilian casualties would stoke anti-Western sentiment in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation, where powerful Islamist militias are threatening to topple an internationally backed — but desperately weak — interim government.

It's unlikely that American forces would be involved, given the lingering memories of 1993, when a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was shot down over the Somali capital, Mogadishu, resulting in the deaths of 18 servicemen. The current struggles of a small African Union peacekeeping mission also raise doubts that any country would be willing to send ground forces into Somalia.

"Our intelligence is pretty shaky inside Somalia on a whole bunch of things," said Roger Middleton, a Somalia researcher at Chatham House, a British-based research center. "There's a real danger of arresting fishermen."

One of the Bush administration's last foreign-policy initiatives immediately drew skepticism from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said over the weekend that the United States lacked the military intelligence to carry out a land-based operation. Officials in other countries have suggested that land pursuits could violate international law.

The proposal authorizes countries to take "all necessary measures ashore in Somalia, including in its airspace, to interdict those who are using Somali territory" to plan or conduct piracy, according to a draft resolution circulated at the U.N. last week.

"Piracy is a problem that does start ashore, and that's where the ultimate solution is going to lie," said Lt. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, which has deployed ships to patrol the region. "But we're concerned about minimizing the impact to innocent civilians."

The difference of opinion within the administration reflects the sometimes impossible puzzle that is Somalia, one of the world's failed states, which has lacked a functioning government since 1991. The interim government is near collapse after two strange days that saw the president try to fire the prime minister for pursuing a peace agreement that would dilute the president's power, only to have the parliament back the prime minister Monday with a staunch vote of confidence.

Authorities have lost control of the country, including the waters off its coast, where pirates in simple fiberglass speedboats have attempted to hijack more than 124 ships this year and secured more than $30 million in ransom payments, according to regional maritime officials. They're holding at least 16 foreign ships and at least 330 crew members hostage, dramatically raising insurance costs for shipping companies, which already are reeling from the global economic crisis.

An official in the Somali Foreign Ministry, Osman Mohamed Adan, said that land incursions would deter the pirates only temporarily. "We need international forces to assist us to build up our own security forces," Adan said.

Once ashore, foreign forces might struggle to identify pirates. Pirate groups are thought to have paid off local authorities, including government officials, and while some flaunt their wealth with new SUVs and other toys, many are disguised as fishermen and indistinguishable from other villagers.

"It's not like in 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' where you turn up in one cavern and they're all there and you can arrest them," Middleton said.

And, like virtually everything else in Somalia, the groups are divided along clan lines, a potential land mine for foreign forces.

"Militias could play a tit-for-tat game against each other, feeding false intelligence to get rid of the competition," said Peter Lehr, a piracy expert at the University of St. Andrew's in Scotland. "We could be lured into their own tribal war."

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