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U.S. troops’ anti-piracy mandate stops short of land efforts

By JAMES WARDEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 31, 2009

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DJIBOUTI — Countries around the world have devoted substantial sweat and treasure to securing the waters that Somali pirates prowl, but the military is largely ignoring the land that those pirates hail from — potentially limiting the effect that the largest anti-piracy effort in decades could have.

The military itself sees Somalia as an important part of the Horn of Africa’s maritime crisis. In a press briefing aboard the flagship for America’s anti-piracy task force, a slide listed three keys to success: "The Maritime Community," or merchant ships; "The Coalition," or the military; and "Governance in Somalia."

This should come as no surprise since successful anti-piracy efforts have had a land component throughout much of history. The Marines stormed Tripoli while fighting the Barbary pirates, an event immortalized in the Marine Corps hymn. Overland expeditions attacked settlements of the 17th-century Caribbean pirates who were the basis of the modern buccaneer stereotype.

As in Somalia, piracy in those cases arose out of a power vacuum. And in both cases, larger forces eventually eradicated piracy — colonialism in the case of the Barbary pirates, settlement and strengthened government for those in the Americas.

Yet the military’s approach to Somalia includes no similar land effort. Joint Task Force 151, the anti-piracy group, is strictly a maritime force, said Rear Adm. Terry McKnight, the task force commander.

That’s partly because responsibility for the piracy problem is split between units in the Gulf of Aden and units on land. McKnight’s task force falls under U.S. Central Command, which oversees hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but not Africa. Somalia instead sits in the domain of Africa Command — specifically, its subordinate command, the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).

"AFRICOM is the land. We’re the sea. My charter is just in the water," McKnight said.

An AFRICOM spokesman said the piracy task force fell under CENTCOM because that command has long handled traffic through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. He would not discuss future operations in Somalia except to say that there were no imminent land-based operations.

AFRICOM is a recently created command that specializes in fusing military efforts with diplomacy and aid into a comprehensive foreign policy. Its military efforts tend more toward "soft power" approaches such as civil affairs and training other militaries.

Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, the commander, told the House Appropriations Committee on March 19 that AFRICOM plays a part in bringing pirates ashore to neighboring countries for trial and in helping Somalia’s neighbors protect their territorial waters.

But AFRICOM isn’t working much with Somalia itself. The soft approach it favors requires a stable government and that’s something Somalia doesn’t have, said Rear Adm. Anthony M. Kurta, the CJTF-HOA commander.

"With the lack of a … well-functioning Somali government, CJTF-HOA currently has no ongoing capacity building with the Somali government," he said.

Said McKnight: "The problem with going ashore is there’s no pirate uniform."

Both AFRICOM and McKnight said the State Department would handle any diplomatic efforts with Somalis. Officials with the State Department did not return calls asking for comment.

Few in the military are eager to discuss the country where all the piracy originates. Task Force 151 said its mandate stops where the water ends. Ward says AFRICOM is following the State Department’s lead in foreign policy, while the command’s spokesmen insist it doesn’t have anything to do with piracy.

CJTF-HOA officials have said they are frustrated with the media’s misperception that the command is involved in anti-piracy efforts.

In effect, military leaders are hoping the situation in Somalia gets better — even as they recognize that the country is key to eradicating piracy.

McKnight said pirate attacks can be stopped purely from the sea with enough ships, but he acknowledged that it will take more to end piracy for good.

"I’m positive we can make a difference," he said. "Can it end? I don’t think it will ever end. We need to get Somalia a government and coast guard. … This is an enduring operation. We’re going to be out here for a while."

Some analysts have tentative hopes that Somalia’s president will be able to reunite the country. President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has already taken steps to win over many of the extremist groups who have torn the country apart. One effort has been introducing Shariah, or Islamic law, as the basis of the country’s legal process.

But with recent revelations that Somali provincial officials may even be backing piracy networks, the country may have a long way to go before stability on land calms the troubled waters just off its coast.


What puts a ship at risk of piracy?

  • A low "freeboard" — the height of the ship between the waterline and the deck — allows pirates to climb from their small boats onto the bigger ship
  • Slow speed
  • No lookouts or an inattentive watch
  • Traveling outside the International
  • Recognized Transit Corridor
  • Moving during the early morning
  • Not broadcasting a signal that identifies the ship to others

How merchants can guard their ships

  • Use the International Recognized Transit Corridor
  • Travel through high-risk areas in the dark
  • Use convoys
  • Sign in to the Horn of Africa’s Maritime Security Center before entering high-risk areas
  • Travel as fast as possible
  • Maintain lookouts
  • Set fire hoses and keep them running
  • Use all available lighting
  • Use lights and alerts to let the pirates know they’ve been spotted
  • Conduct evasive maneuvers when pirates attack
  • Most importantly: Never stop the ship for pirates

How the measures work in practice

  • MV Longchamp (liquid petroleum gas tanker): Captured by pirates on Jan. 29.
  • Not registered with the Maritime Security Center
  • No hoses
  • No lookouts, complacent crew
  • No attempt to speed up
  • Not on the vulnerable shipping list
  • MV Polaris (chemical and product tanker): Staved off a pirate attack on Feb. 11.
  • Coordinated with the Maritime Security Center
  • Broadcast a signal that identified itself to others
  • Posted lookouts
  • Active crew
  • Performed evasive maneuvers
  • Made a distress call to military forces

SOURCE: Combined Task Force 151

A Danish navy sailor scans for ships March 17 while flying as a gunner in a Lynx helicopter based on the HDMS Absalon.
JAMES WARDEN / S&S

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