Cat and mouse

Operation Atalanta off the Somalian coast is considered successful, even though its EU soldiers haven’t been able to solve the piracy problem. In Somalia, no government has established anything like a state monopoly on the use of force for decades. Disorder is the consequence.

By Lorenz Hemicker

The Horn of Africa, in mid-August. A German naval ship is patrolling the coast. The Sachsen (Saxony) is part of EU NAVFOR, a naval unit of the European Union, which was deployed to deter piracy.

A week after the German ship joined the mission, another vessel, the French frigate, La Fayette, reports a suspicious boat. The Sachsen promptly launches a helicopter from its rear deck. The pilots identify the boat, a dhow, and once the Sachsen moves out full throttle, a chase begins. The pirates want to escape to the coast with a number of hostages aboard. After a three-day chase, the German Navy finally asserts itself. The Somali pirates discard their weapons and return the dhow to its legitimate crew, their hostages. The pirates are sent to Rotterdam to await trial as privateers.

Germans are glad to read about pirate chases with happy endings, such as this one in the German Navy’s Atalanta blog. The entry was written by Maike H., a 25-year-old female Lieutenant-at-Sea. Her report confirms Germans’ impression of a meaningful EU mission, mandated by the UN Security Council.

Germans appreciate the humanitarian purpose. Accordingly, the Federal Republic always makes at least one aircraft or ship available to the EU unit.

Currently, 328 German soldiers are involved in the Atalanta mission. The Bundestag, the federal parliament, which must authorise troop deployments abroad, has passed a mandate for up to 1,400 soldiers. Germany and the other European participants want to prevent pirates from robbing supplies that belong to the World Food Programme (WFP). The EU fleet, in cooperation with NATO units and warships of other states, is also meant to secure civilian shipping in an important global shipping corridor.

Huge tasks

Operation Atalanta is dealing with hostage situations, kidnappings for ransom and the theft of ships. Moreover, it is protecting logistical transports for the Somalia Mission of the African Union (AMISOM), which is designed to help to stabilise Somalia.

Usually, four to seven ships and two to three reconnaissance aircraft from the EU have the daunting task of monitoring an area of water that stretches far into the Indian Ocean from the southern Red Sea. The area’s size is four million square kilometres of water – ten times larger than Germany. Concerning its primary aim, securing food aid, the EU mission has an immaculate record. Since Operation Atalanta began in December 2008, 100 % of the WFP’s food-laden ships have arrived safely.

The escorts operate like those reported on by Maike H. in her Atalanta blog. She describes how the Sachsen greets a WFP freighter laden with corn, biscuits and wheat outside the harbour of Bebera and escorts it along the northern Somali coastline, where most of the pirate bases lie. For two days, the ships travel eastward to Boosaaso, in the northern province of Puntland, where the frigate delivers the WFP ship to the harbourmaster and then turns its attention to other tasks – such as its secondary objective of protecting commercial shipping.

In this regard, the soldiers have been less successful. The route around the Horn of Africa is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. It is the main artery between Asia and Europe. Half of Europe’s foreign trade is shipped through the Gulf of Aden, comprising goods worth an annual € 335 billion.

Pirates are constantly reaping their spoils from this traffic. From 2009 until mid-September 2012, the EU Naval Force recorded a total of 423 attacks on civilian ships. According to the data, pirates managed to hijack 123 vessels. In early October, pirates were in control of six large civilian ships and an estimated 177 hostages. Many of these victims have been held captive for years.

The constant danger irritates Germany’s Federal Government. Unhindered global trade is a top priority in German security policy. It is true that the number of pirate attacks has diminished in recent months, but that may be due to this year’s particularly strong summer monsoon and high seas that hindered pirate attacks. It may also be due to cargo ships hiring an increasing number of private security forces.

The presence of international forces in the region may also be helpful. But these vessels are certainly not the only reason for decreasing crime. The area they are expected to patrol is far too big. Up to now, the EU units have not been capable of covering the entire mission area in the Indian Ocean, not even in cooperation with other ships sent by NATO and various other countries.

Military sources say that even a sea blockade near the coast would not do the trick. In view of the number of currently available units, they say, it would be full of holes “like a Swiss cheese”.

To fight the estimated 3000 to 5000 Somalia-based pirates effectively, the Europeans would have to disband their camps on land and destroy their ships and logistics. Doing so is permitted, but only to a limited degree. German forces are allowed to attack camps up to 2,000 meters inland, but they may only use air-strikes and must not operate on the ground.

Unsolved problem

Top officials at Germany’s Defence Ministry admit that the problem remains unsolved. Thomas Kossendey, the Ministry’s parliamentary undersecretary, said in late August: “What we are doing at sea and on the beach is merely fighting the symptoms.” Unless the roots of piracy are tackled, he adds, “we will still be conducting Atalanta in 50 years.” In his view, Somalia and its neighbouring countries should put a check on piracy. But even after the presidential elections in Somalia in September, the country does not yet have a reasonably functioning government. And without a state monopoly over the legitimate use of force, improving matters seems impossible.

The European Union has started to train security forces in the region. Since 2010, the Europeans have been in Uganda as part of the European Training Mission Somalia (EUTM). Together with Ugandan forces, they are training thousands of regular Somali government troops. Since last summer, more­over, EUCAP Nestor has a civilian mission on the ground to help build coastguards in Somalia and neighbouring countries.

Some voices in Germany are calling for greater efforts to combat the leaders, middlemen and investors who are backing the pirates. It is not enough to fight those who attack the ships, they argue. They want everyone who profits from ransom payments and other proceeds of criminal transactions to be prosecuted.

“The crux of the matter,” says a senior German Admiral, “is ultimately that piracy will only disappear if we work with all our might to help build a Somali state.” But that will take time. Operation Atalanta runs until 2014. If the piracy problem continues, it seems certain that the mission will be extended.

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