- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009


The only sure way to deal with pirates is to kill them. Piracy is on the rise on the high seas, but governments - including ours - are not taking the threat seriously enough.

The first seizure of a U.S. flagged vessel by pirates in recent memory was thwarted yesterday as the crew retook the vessel. The taking and retaking of the Maersk Alabama has grabbed headlines, but it was one of six ships attacked in that area since last weekend. The only reason this ship was saved is that the American crew fought back.

Today's pirates are bolder, better armed and range farther from shore than has historically been the case. They attack cargo vessels, tankers, fishing vessels, cruise liners, yachts and the occasional tugboat. The Intelligence Community's 2009 Annual Threat Assessment noted that “the number of successful pirate attacks has increased almost fourfold since 2007, after the pirates received several multimillion-dollar ransom payments in early 2008.” The lesson is clear: If you pay off pirates, you get more of them.

The problem is as much at land as it is at sea, if not more so. The 2009 threat assessment stated that “local authorities' unwillingness or inability to stem piracy also has fueled the proliferation of hijackings.” Somalia is a persistently failed state, trifurcated and wracked by insurgency and general lawlessness. Piracy expert Claude Berube, who is writing a book on naval crises, told us: “We need land-based stability in order to have maritime security. Without a stable government, criminals and pirates can act with impunity.”

Americans have been spoiled through the years by the degree to which the U.S. Navy and other partner navies have been able to keep the sea lanes relatively safe and secure. Yet most Americans are unaware of the degree of effort necessary to keep commerce flowing. Pirates are most active near the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea and around the Strait of Malacca near Singapore. The situation has gotten so bad that countries not normally seen operating outside their regions, such as China, are deploying vessels to secure their shipping since they can no longer rely on other powers to keep trade flowing unmolested.

The U.S. government has been tracking the piracy issue in the Indian Ocean for some time. Combined Task Force 150, a multinational naval flotilla, has been conducting maritime-security operations in the area since 2002, countering piracy, terrorism and other threats. A second group, Combined Task Force 151, went into operation last January specifically to counter piracy. The pirates are known to cooperate with smuggling networks that move personnel and materiel for terrorist groups, although the pirates themselves are largely nonideological. Their dominant interest is ransom money, which is often paid to them quickly, quietly and secretly by shipping companies seeking to avoid increased insurance premiums that would be levied if they reported the crimes. This only exacerbates the problem.

The United States and other countries have been cutting back on the ships needed to stem the piracy threat. In 1989, the United States had 164 destroyers and frigates; today we have about 73. In the same period, the British went from 48 such craft to 25. This mirrors trends in other Western states. The pirates in Puntland and elsewhere are exploiting a vacuum created by the withdrawal of Western navies from the sea. Some private firms, such as Xe (formerly known as Blackwater) and Secopex, have begun to offer maritime-security services to shipping companies. How far these companies may go legally to protect the ships they are escorting is uncertain.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea forbids any vessels but clearly identified naval or other national forces from seizing pirate vessels, but the rules of self-defense at sea are somewhat murkier. One thing is clear: Current force levels are insufficient to deter the threat, and paying ransoms only creates more pirates. As President Washington said in 1786, lamenting payments being made to the Barbary Pirates, “Would to heaven we had a navy able to reform those enemies to mankind, or crush them into nonexistence.” We approve of either solution.

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