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Geopolitics

Is Europe’s Fight Against Somali Pirates Headed To Dry Land?

Germany is likely to approve an E.U. mandate allowing troops to fight Somali pirates not just in the Gulf of Aden, but also along the shore. Is Europe setting itself up for another Blackhawk Down?

U.S. Forces in Somalia (expertinfantry)
U.S. Forces in Somalia (expertinfantry)
Thorsten Jungholt

There's a lot of traffic in the Gulf of Aden. The Gulf connects the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. Major international sea routes run through here: every trading vessel heading from Europe to the Indian Ocean passes this way. The area also draws many tourists on cruise ships and sailboats.

But there's one serious problem. At its south edge, the Gulf of Aden borders the coast of Somalia. That is a country without a functioning government, where a civil war involving untold numbers of clans and warlords has been raging for 20 years. The situation has made Somalia one of largest humanitarian crisis areas in Africa, with only two significant sources of income: international aid and piracy.

For years, an estimated number of between 3,000 and 5,000 pirates have been capturing the world media's attention along with foreign ships that they hold for ransoms of millions of euros. They have made the waters off the 2,720-km coast of Somalia the most dangerous on the planet.

The damage to economies caused by Horn of Africa piracy adds up to several billion euros. According to International Maritime Bureau statistics, in 2010 alone some 220 ships were attacked. In 2011, pirates in high-speed boats attacked 151 tankers and freighters.

The decline in the number of attacks has two main reasons: shipping companies have upped protection, both technologically and through armed private security teams; and five years ago the international community sent in a military presence.

Operation Atalanta, first led by NATO and now by the European Union, is charged with implementing the U.N. Security Council's Resolution 1846 by taking "part actively in the fight against piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia by deploying naval vessels and military aircraft, and through seizure and disposition of boats, vessels, arms and other related equipment used in the commission of piracy and armed robbery off the coast of Somalia ...."

The German Federal Armed Forces have participated in Operation Atalanta since 2008, and currently have some 340 troops on active duty patrolling off the Horn of Africa on the German Navy's biggest ship, the frigate "Berlin." In May, the vessel will be replaced by the "Bremen" warship, which likes its predecessor, has two helicopters on board.

Taking the fight ashore

While the number of boats being held for ransom has decreased, there are still pirated ships – presently, some 215 crew members on nine ships wait while pirates and shipping companies agree on the amount of ransom money to be paid. So the European Union, at the urging of Great Britain and France, agreed in March to expand Operation Atalanta. This means that fighting pirates will no longer just take place off the coast – the armed forces will be allowed to follow the pirates 2 km inland with air attacks.

The German government was skeptical about the development, but does not want a repeat of the flack it came in for after its refusal to take part in the Libya effort last year. "With all of Europe fighting the pirates, Germany-- as Europe's biggest trading nation – must join them," said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

Last Wednesday, the Federal Cabinet approved a mandate for the armed forces extending their involvement to May 2013. It states that "German forces can go inland from the beach for a maximum of 2,000 meters to reach logistics sites set up by the pirates." German helicopters can thus engage in air attacks against pirate boats, weapons or fuel storage installations up to 2 km in from the beaches. The new mandate continues to forbid ground attacks. The only exception is emergencies – for example, if a helicopter on an inland mission is shot down and its crew must be rescued.

The Socialist party and Greens are not approving the mandate because they believe it is too risky. Leftist parties have refused it from the start. The federal parliament, nevertheless, expects to have enough Black-Yellow Coalition (the two conservative parties and the Free Democratic Party FDP) votes for the mandate to be approved on May 11.

Nobody wants another Black Hawk Down

There is also some skepticism about the new mandate among members of the Armed Forces. While high-ranking officers call it a "useful expansion of the military tool box," others warn that the piracy problem has to be attacked by the roots. "Military operations only fight the symptoms, not the causes," Armed Forces General Inspector Volker Wieker told Die Welt. "The problem of piracy stems from a whole background network of causes and can only be resolved together with the Somali government."

Minister of Defense Thomas de Maizière described – with some reserve – the mandate as a "small, useful, additional military option." He said the real work lies in building the nation of Somalia, targeting the big bosses behind the pirates and fighting money laundering.

Another hush-hush option is being considered: comprehensive military engagement in Somalia. "The German Hanseatic League 13th-17th centuries was only successful fighting piracy after they started fighting the pirates on land," said a high-ranking military officer, adding however that after the U.S. experience in Africa in 1993, nobody wanted to get involved in a land war there.

The U.S. mission in Somalia became fodder for a Hollywood movie, Black Hawk Down. Its portrayal of the crash of an American helicopter along with images of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu have made a strong dissuasive impression.

From a military standpoint, the new mandate has one major weakness: unlike other E.U. operation plans, the exact distance that international forces can penetrate inland has been revealed, which means that the pirates already know where they are -- and aren't -- safe. U.N. experts believe they have already moved their bases more than 2 km inland.

Read the original article in German

Photo - expertinfantry

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