2 years, 9 months ago
In Response to SOF and Piracy I linked Andrew Exum’s disagreement with me over the proper response to piracy. Exum advocated the use of SEALs, and I advocated the use of large quantities of U.S. Marines in a long term presence. When the Maersk Alabama was retaken by the U.S., it was with SEAL teams. Andrew did a victory dance, and his commenters lambasted my views at Abu Muqawama. One commenter made the observation that while I addressed a larger issue than just this situation, this situation was indeed unique in that there were hostages – as if the problem of piracy and ransom payments isn’t comprised by the aggregate of multiple hostage situations.
It is frankly rather puzzling to me how someone can so badly misinterpret my views. It betrays the prose for either sloppy or dishonest, and Exum isn’t dishonest. John Nagl of CNAS refused to correspond with me after this post, and Andrew Exum has exchanged only one short e-mail since then. The whole exchange really was rather bizarre for fully grown men. My points all along pertained to the use of SEAL teams as a remedy for the problem of piracy. There simply aren’t SEAL teams, aren’t enough aircraft and aren’t sufficient logistics for the use of SOF to be a remedy to the problem of piracy. And the SEAL teams are needed elsewhere and for other things. In the grand scheme of things, it makes little difference whether the Maersk Alabama was rescued or not.
I had further said that I talked with one Marine Scout Sniper (on the 26th MEU, before this incident) who had a boatload of pirates in the sights of his Sasser .50 sniper rifle from a Helicopter, and he refused to take the shot because, well, “Hell, who wants to get tangled up with the lawyers when he gets back to the ship?” In fact, taking the shots to save the Maersk Alabama required approval of the POTUS.
Folks, pirates aren’t that hard to find. The Marines of the 26th MEU did it frequently in the Gulf of Aden. While in the Persian Gulf, they also had an Iranian helicopter virtually land on board the deck of the USS Iwo Jima with Iranian gunners laughing at the Marines, and the U.S. Navy ordering the Marines NOT to engage for fear of creating an “international incident” (how’s that for “rules of engagement”?) One of my points was that with aircraft, radar, LCACs and other sea-based craft, there is adequate means of locating and interdicting pirates, regardless of the size of the Gulf of Aden.
The problem isn’t finding them. The problem is what happens then. Now with that background, let’s cover recent data concerning pirates.
The Somalian pirates seized another big ship the other day. This time it was a large oil tanker. I spoke with a friend who owns ships and lives in Athens about the latest attack. He provided some interesting information. My notes from the conversation:
The seized tanker is owned by a large and successful family owned Greek shipping company. Pirates have hit Greek ships before, but this is the largest ship to be captured. There is $200mm worth of crude on board. The vessel is worth $100mm – 200mm. There was a crew of 25 of which eight were Greeks, most of whom were officers.
The Greek shipping world is PISSED at this one. The combination of the money and the fact that Greek crew members are involved makes this a very big deal.
I got a status on the bigger picture in pirate land:
There are currently 20 ships of all sizes and uses currently being held by Somali pirates. There are approximately 700 prisoners being held. It generally takes two to three months to negotiate and pay a ransom. My guy estimated that in the past year nearly $300mm in ransom has been paid to pirates.
There have been attempts to thwart the pirates but they are (obviously) not working. NATO has warships in the region as does the United States. The problem appears to be the “rules of engagement”. The Western powers have the ability to stop and search suspected pirate ships. But when the pirates see them coming they dump their arms overboard. Therefore they are released as only armed ships and crews can be seized and taken out of commission. The pirates are well aware of these rules.
This article goes on to make an important observation.
The final consideration is what is happening within Somalia. There is a group called al Shaabab. They are Muslim extremists. They too are highly armed. They have been fighting with the Somali pirates. Al- Shaabab wants to take over the job the pirates are doing. They want the money and the power that comes from pirating ships.
My guess would be that the Islamic militants will win, and the pirates will lose (the pirates will become Islamic militants). I have previously recommended something like the following concerning pirates: tell the lawyers to go home, find the pirates, line them up on the deck of the ship, and shoot each and every one of them. Dump their bodies into the sea, and videotape the entire event. Post the video to YouTube as a warning to future pirates. Thus, an end to piracy.
Of course, this seems brutal and uncivilized to many. Indeed it is. But value judgments have a way of being nuanced, difficult things that eventually turn on you and create unintended consequences. My recommendation is brutal, but consider the alternatives. Hostages continue to be taken, ransoms are paid, lives are lost in a continual drip and drain of violence in the Gulf of Aden, and – perhaps best of all – yes, the world funds Islamic militancy with the ransoms.
A similar example might be the problem of illegal immigration. This problem is easy to solve, but the U.S. doesn’t yet want the solution. The more violent method would be to line the border with troops and fire on sight at anyone crossing the border. The less violent method would be to imprison any CEOs or company owners who hire (knowingly or not) illegal aliens. But for a whole host of reasons (mostly related to providing corporate welfare), America isn’t yet ready for any solution to illegal immigration. Maybe one day it will be.
So we have made the judgment to appear civilized to the world – and us. This kicks the can down the road, but it feels good for the time being unless it’s our relative who has been taken hostage. We don’t recognize the increased cost of goods because of ransom payments and increased costs of security. We don’t acknowledge that wealth has a moral component, i.e., God demands that we use of it wisely, something that would militate against funding Islamic militancy. We are civilized, and that’s all that is important at the present.
But let those numbers wash over you again. Seven hundred prisoners are being held at the moment. Some $300 million has been paid in ransoms to Somali pirates. There aren’t enough SEAL teams and logistics isn’t sufficient to conduct cloak and dagger operations to free them all. Oh sure, it can be interesting, reading about guys doing HALO jumps with re-breathers on, dropping their parachute just before the water, swimming to destination and engaging the target. Things like this are what guys play in video games like Call of Duty 4.
But this just isn’t reality in the Gulf of Aden with 700 hostages being held and Islamic militants wanting to muscle in on the action. And concern for pirates dropping their weapons into the sea just before being captured won’t win the day. We can win the war on piracy, but currently we are not. As these things go, it’s fairly straight forward and easy given what we have dealt with in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
To date we have chosen not to deal with the problem. As I have pointed out before, just as with illegal immigration, we want piracy more than we want the solution. Piracy (and illegal immigration) exists because we want it to. Those value judgments are indeed complex things, no?
UPDATE: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link.
UPDATE #2: Ah … isn’t this fun? Fark has a discussion thread up with one commenter responding thusly: ” … If I can’t kill someone for laughing at me, I don’t want to kill anyone anymore.”
Poor fellow. It has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with force protection, and the Iranians were laughing at the U.S. because they knew we wouldn’t take it seriously regardless of our military doctrine.