U.S. and E.U. Chase Pirates on to Somali Soil

Just days after a Greek-owned oil tanker carrying a quarter-million tons of crude was hijacked by Somali pirates, the European Union opened a new front in its war against the buccaneers by attacking them on land. The Associated Press reports that European forces struck a pirate base “in Handulle village, about 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of Haradhere town.” While no deaths were reported in the attack—carried out by helicopters and support ships along the coast, the strike did considerable damage. Bile Hussein, a pirate commander, told the AP that “the attack along Somalia’s central coastline destroyed speed boats, fuel depots and an arms store. ‘They destroyed our equipment to ashes. It was a key supplies center for us…The fuel contributed to the flames and destruction. Nothing was spared.’” According to the Telegraph, “The attack involved troops from several of the European navies including seven frigates…from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal.”

The action is the first of its kind since the EU expanded the scope and scale of its mission in March. Citing the EU’s “commitment to fighting piracy off the Horn of Africa” and the “misery” piracy has caused the Somali people, the European Council moved to extend its presence in the Arabian Sea until the end of 2014, and broadened its area of operations to the Somali mainland and the country’s territorial waters. The EU’s decision came shortly after news that President Barack Obama ordered Navy Seals into the country on a rescue mission to free an American aid worker and her colleague from capture by warlords.

The Christian Science Monitor has some good analysis on the situation, noting that the EU’s actions today suggest that Brussels has joined the United States—which has been carrying out missions against the pirates for some time using drones—in “pursuing a policy of diplomacy by airstrike.”

The good news from all this is that we can’t expect a full-scale land invasion of Somalia at any point in the near future. For one, the ghosts of Black Hawk Down still haunt Washington policymakers and their EU counterparts. But perhaps more pertinently, as the Institute for Security Studies’ Andrews Atta-Asamaoh points out, invasion would likely lead to moral hazard. Any full-scale action could “very easily play into the hands of the Islamists,” says Atta-Asamoah, “and allow them to whip up nationalism that would turn all progress towards a peace process around completely.”

The bad news, then, is that we can expect to see more of the same half-way house approach to managing the situation with increasing forays onto the territory of Somalia itself. As the Financial Times reports, “Tuesday’s attack is expected to be the first of many along the thousands of miles of Somali coastline.” From the point of view of militaries patrolling the area, air strikes minimize possibilities for casualties on all sides while disrupting the operations of pirates and robbing them of safe haven. This preference was echoed by a spokesperson for the EU itself. “The pirates have felt in the past that once they are on dry land, we have to back off. Following the extension to our mandate, we are now able to deny them that impunity on land, and this morning’s mission is a clear demonstration that we intend to make life as difficult as we can for them on land, as well as at sea.” But it is far from clear that a growing reliance on airstrikes—and violence more generally—no matter how inconvenient for the pirates, opens up breathing room for a peace process to develop, and for Somalia to reclaim its sovereign independence.