The Legacy of Piracy in Somalia and US Militarism
The recent hostage taking of American Merchant Marine officer Richard Phillips, and the ensuing standoff in the Gulf of Aden over the Maersk Alabama was cause for a surge in blindly patriotic furor by the US press. FOX news immediately declared that these pirates were linked to Al-Queda, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jumped on the bandwagon stating that the pirates were effectively "terrorists..and should be dealt with accordingly". The motivations of the pirates off the coast of Somalia have been mischaracterized, and the stage has been set for implementing the new War on Terror dubbed - "Overseas Contingency Operations".
The lawlessness within Somalia in 1991, when warlords took control of the country and eventually fought off coalition US, Malaysian, Pakistani and Italian forces, had roots in broader US military strategic aims in the region. As depicted in the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down, the American Rangers units were greatly hampered in their efforts to take control of the city of Mogadishu by the insurgents tactics of using RPG rockets fired at the tail propeller of the American helicopters, setting them into an uncontrollable tailspin and crash. These special tactics were in fact taught by Special Forces Operatives in the United States Military to many insurgent groups in the 1980's Afghan Mujahedeen War against the Soviet Union, which attracted "freedom fighters" from around the Middle East and Africa to this cause.
Just as the notion of "freedom fighter" was later transformed to "terrorist" for the necessary foreign policy objectives, so one nation's "Pirate" is another nation's "Coast Guard". Competing warlord factions in the 90's, and latter the Islamic Courts government in 2006 have been unable to sustain a functioning civilian government on land. Meanwhile, international shipping companies have used the Somali coastline as an affordable dumping site for nuclear and other toxic waste, and have illegally overfished the surrounding waters with no accountability for years. While the official government has been unable to provide an effective means of protecting its own coastline against European and Chinese intrusion, the pirates of Somalia have grown in numbers and respect amongst the local population. A recent article in the Times of London interviewed one of these self proclaimed "Saviors of the Sea" - Boyha, who relates stories of bags of millions of dollars dropped from helicopters onto the decks of hijacked ships in ransom exchange for the liberty of crew and ship. When asked if he plans to return to the life of a pirate after settling down, Boyha replies; "That is up to the international community," he says, "they need to solve the problem of illegal fishing, the root of our troubles. We are waiting for action."
The outcome of the standoff over the Maersk Alabama, with a Navy SEALS attack rescuing captain Phillips and killing several pirates has certainly escalated anti-American sentiment in the region. The Obama administration has called for increased Navy presence in the region in cooperation with other nations in order to deal with the piracy attacks themselves, but has not addressed any of the underlying issues having to do with the negligence of the shipping companies in this region. The Gulf of Aden, just South of the Red Sea and opening to the Indian Ocean, comprises shipping channels which are important not only for commerce in oil from the other side of the Gulf through the Red Sea and Suez Canal and on to Europe, but also for the transport and pre-positioning of US military equipment and forces. Military supply ships, crewed by civilian Merchant Seaman as well, transit the region en route to Diego Garcia South in the Indian Ocean as well into the Persian Gulf towards Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Increasing militarization under the auspices of "Overseas Contingency Operations" is the direction of the current foreign policy establishment on the African continent and abroad. This is basically a continuation of the "Full Spectrum Domination" policy objectives of Bush/Cheney as laid out in the Project for a New American Century document, calling for increasing militarization in response to foreign threats and insurgencies. In North Africa joint American-Egyptian military exercises in Operation Bright Star had been in the works just before September 11th 2001, and these war games served as a training ground for what was to come. Whether the US War Machine acts unilaterally or it cooperates with other imperialist nations (including China) in combating piracy with militarism, these efforts will serve only to increase strife and lawlessness in the region so long as they continually fail to seek a political solution and address the root causes of poverty and environmental destruction on land and sea.
The writer has been a Merchant Seaman for 8 years, Is a member of Sailors Union of the Pacific and has been on ships transiting the Somali Coast into the Gulf of Aden.