13 April 2009

Analysis: US Navy reverses course?

Unidentified sources have told Bloomberg that the military is considering land attacks on pirate bases almost six months after the UN authorized such action.

The military also is drawing up proposals to aid the fledgling Somalia government to train security forces and develop its own coast guard, said the officials, who requested anonymity. The plans will be presented to the Obama administration as it considers a coordinated U.S. government and international response to piracy, the officials said.
If true, it should not astonish that the Pentagon has waited this long to begin "drawing up proposals" for such a contingency. Secretary of Defense Gates had ruled out such a move in his New Year's trip to Qatar and Fifth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Bill Gortney repeatedly told reporters in 2008 that the "root causes of piracy" needed to be addressed whenever he was asked to apply military force. On television this weekend, Gortney returned to this favored theme yet again, saying the United States hopes "that the tribal elders in Somalia would encourage young men to look for other livelihoods, realizing that the lack of opportunity is what drives them to piracy in the first place."

In another twist on his 2008 positions, Gortney told reporters that he favors arming guards on merchant ships.

It is unfortunate that reporters covering Gortney continually allow him free rein in offering ideas and suggestions for other executives to implement - far outside the realm of his own responsibility - instead of bearing down on the question of what Gortney has done for the cause today.

As documented in our Somali Piracy Yearbook 2008, Gortney's premature establishment of a maritime patrol zone - without supplying adequate military patrols - appears to have concentrated targets in a way that exploded hijackings last year.

We further saw merchant ships, coralled into a free pickings zone, unable to reach Gortney's forces in calls for assistance, resorting in desperation to calling the IMB's anti-piracy desk in the Far East. Communications - and related planning - failed.

In deploying the new anti-piracy TF 151, we saw Gortney's new task force given a law enforcement mission with arrest, case-development, and trial being a primary activity. How this philosophy will translate into military land operations in pirate base areas is anyone's guess.

Finally - and this is a key indicator of confidence reporters have missed - new national flotillas sent to the region are kept out of Gortney's command, with Gortney appropriating to himself a face-saving coordination role for such forces.

If the Obama Administration wants a new approach to piracy, it needs to take a hard look at Gates and Gortney.

Updates (04/14/09):

Reuters reports "Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, head of the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet, said of the [Capt. Phillips] rescue: 'This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it.' "

In a routine press briefing today, the Obama Administration's spokesman said regarding Somali piracy that the US president "was actively engaged ... even if he was 'reticent to speak.'"

A story carried by AP today reported: "The United States [i.e. policymakers ] is deciding how to deal with piracy on the high seas."

Updates (04/15/09):

Secretary of Defense Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen say that the review of US pirate policy will exclude key military options from future consideration.

Gates said he will not consider "bulking up" naval forces in the area and Mullen repeated his position that Somali pirate bases must not be attacked by land forces regardless of UN authorization ("I think that would be really unfortunate and would most likely backfire."). Gates reiterated the Pentagon's position that piracy will get worse until Somali poverty is cured, and demanded the international community "get something on land that begins to change the equation" for the "incredible number of poor people."

Meanwhile, Mullen defended the Pentagon's anti-piracy record with an oblique reference to multinational TF 151: "We've actually been focused on this issue [piracy] for some period of time, and set up a task force out in that part of the world last fall. We've had a focus on it." (The task force actually came together in the new year, not "last fall." And for the first half of the first quarter it had fewer than three ships.)

Returning to the Pentagon's theme of piracy being a non-military issue, Mullen spoke of legal agreements with Kenya: "There's a lot of work to do. It's a big challenge, but there are many, many people working on it [treaties] right now."

By declaring as "off limits" certain topics, Gates and Mullen give the impression that the review of anti-piracy options will focus on justifying the current unfocused and misguided activity. They will stay the course under cover of a "review".