Monday, November 14, 2005

Pirates of the Arabian Sea

Although little noticed in the mainstream media, pirates are on the prowl along the Horn of Africa. In a short squib in the New York Times this weekend it was reported that “Somali pirates chased and attacked five ships in the last week in a sharp rise of banditry apparently directed form a “mother ship” prowling the busy Indian Ocean corridor…. Four vessels escaped, including the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit, which was carrying 151 Western tourists, but a Thai cargo ship was commandeered, bring to seven the number of vessels now being held captive with their crews by the pirates.”

The International Maritime Bureau tracks these developments closely. According to a recent article by the bureau, it appears that Somalia is to piracy today what Afghanistan was to terrorism yesterday: a safe haven for criminality.

“After a quiet spell of nearly two years … serious attacks by heavily-armed pirates have resumed: 25 in the past six months.… Somalia occupies a strategic location on the Horn of Africa. To the north is the Red Sea and the Suez Canal with its heavy traffic of shipping between Europe and Asia. The former Italian colony is close to anarchy, without a functioning national government for the past 14 years. Captain Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the IMB, appealed to naval vessels in the region to come to the aid of ships under attack. ‘At the very least,’ he said, ‘they can prevent the hijackers from taking these ships into Somali waters. Once the vessels have entered these waters the chances of any law enforcement is negligible.’ Unless international action is taken against the pirates … Somalia could become a haven for criminals ‘who may feel encouraged to extend their activities in the wider region.’"

Perhaps what is most newsworthy about these regional episodic attacks is that they are precisely that: limited and irregular. Today we fret endlessly about the rise of terrorism and the threats of madmen bent on destroying Western society as we know it. But pirates? Aren’t those bearded bandits quaint vestiges of a lawless age when barbarians trolled the Barbary Coast in lust of lucre? By and large, yes.

At the dawn of our country Thomas Jefferson would sooner go to war with the Pasha of Tripoli then continue to pay “tribute” to stave off state-sponsored piracy. The Barbary Coast War (a.k.a. the Tripolitan War) of 1801 was fought because Jefferson took a stand and said no more. Assymetrical attacks on our merchant marine vessels were finally met with naval war power. The result? In the words of Robert McHenry, “State-sponsored piracy in the Mediterranean was ended…. The Tripolitan War … first thrust the United States into the unsought role of enforcer of international law against rogue states in league with terrorists.” Today the Marines sing of their exploits on the “shores of Tripoli,” a reference to our forgotten war against state-sponsored piracy.

Is there a lesson in this for us today? Perhaps one day state-sponsored terrorism will be viewed as a quaint historical oddity. For now, we are vexed and perplexed about how best to respond to the barbarians at our gates. But assymetrical attacks on civilians are finally being met with war power. Of course we will never eradicate terrorism fully. But if the international community continues to take a stand, perhaps someday terrorist attacks will no longer garner the patronage of governments. If so, one day they truly may become parochial and episodic.

6 Comments:

Blogger Robert E. Williams said...

Piracy off the coast of Somalia is similar to the kind of terrorism we experienced on 9/11 in that neither requires state sponsorship and, indeed, both thrive in failed states. So rather than sending the Marines to the shores of Tripoli (or Iraq) to punish states that allegedly sponsor criminal behavior, we need to be giving more attention to building the capacity of state to govern their own territories.

Al Qaeda sponsored states (Sudan and Afghanistan); it was not sponsored by any state. The GWOT is based on a strategic error that you seem to be promoting.

11/14/2005 8:34 PM  
Blogger Roger Alford said...

Robert,

My post was intended to suggest that there are certain parallels between the historical battle against state-sponsored piracy and the recent battle against state-sponsored terrorism. Certainly one can note differences as well, such as the degree of direct or indirect support a state may be providing. But my suggestion was that a war on terror against a country like Afghanistan is certainly defensible as a response to 9/11, and that there may be useful historical analogies from the Tripolitan War.

Roger Alford

11/15/2005 1:26 AM  
Blogger Robert E. Williams said...

Roger--

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Richard Perle said, "This could not have been done without the help of one or more governments. . . . Someone taught these suicide bombers how to fly large airplanes. I don't think that can be done without the assistance of large governments. You don't walk in off the street and learn how to fly a Boeing 767" (WaPo, 9/12/01). Perle was wrong, and yet his error was central to the Bush Administration's case for the war in Iraq.

In your post, after breathing a sigh of relief that we're finally meeting attacks against civilians with "war power," you state that "if the international community continues to take a stand, perhaps someday terrorist attacks will no longer garner the patronage of governments." This seems to be promoting Perle's mistaken notion that terrorists, like the pirates of the Barbary Coast, have state sponsors. In the case of Al Qaeda and its progeny, this is simply not true. Rather than sponsoring Al Qaeda, Afghanistan served (as you noted) as "a safe haven." Afghan anarchy, not patronage, made Al Qaeda's sojourn there possible. If the United States continues to go after governments that neoconservatives like Perle believe are patrons of terrorists, we're going to have more wars like the one in Iraq and more missed opportunities to address the real roots of modern terrorism.

It's not that state-sponsored terrorism doesn't exist. It does, but "state-sponsored" is not an accurate adjective to be applied to Al Qaeda or any of the most dangerous terrorist organizations today. So, I'd have to say your analogy is inapt.

Incidentally, the running war with the Barbary pirates was no great military success. The United States actually paid tributes under treaties with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli in the 1790s. One military expedition led to the destruction of an American frigate, the Philadelphia, and the capture of its crew. (Almost two years after their capture, the living crew members were ransomed for $60,000.) Not until 1815 did the United States finally get the upper hand against the principalities of the Barbary Coast.

Keep up the good work!

Robert

11/15/2005 7:58 PM  
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