Debate between American Australian and Norwegian What to Do about Somali Piracy

I’m republishing the following debate that took place on October 7, 2009, in view of the American and European present decision to attack Somali pirates on  land by special forces, which was the proposal I suggested in my contribution to the debate.

By Con George-Kotzabasis

Somali piracy needs speedy, decisive, and relentless action by the U.S. and its European allies. To wait for the ability of Somalis “to police their own territory” and Somali leaders “to take action against pirates,” to quote Secretary Clinton, involved in the only highly profitable enterprise in a poor country, is to fly in the face of reality. In the event that Somali leaders were willing to do so, their military capacity to achieve this would take years to consummate.

Further, an increase of U.S., European, and Asian vessels and a better coordination between them is totally inadequate to police such a huge “expanse of ocean” as Secretary Clinton herself remarks. To pursue such a policy as Secretary Clinton delineates in her speech is to pursue a chimera. What the U.S. and its allies must do is to attack by relentless means, i.e., by air and commando raids the Somali towns from which piracy stems, and at the same time placing the requisite armaments on merchant ships that will protect them from any approaching pirate vessels. No amount of “carrots” will dissuade the pirates to desist and stop them, repeat, from such lucrative business in such impoverished country. Only their decisive military defeat will persuade them to do so.

Dan Kervick says,

I agree in part with C-G Kotzabasis’s assessment. We certainly can’t wait for the restoration of the ability (and inclination) of Somalis to police their own territory and to take action against pirates. Somalia is the most failed and dysfunctional of failed states. I also agree that the linchpin of the problem is that piracy in that part of the world is extremely lucrative. The piracy won’t end until piracy is made an ill bargain for the pirates.

But, given that assessment, I have a different view on the best means for addressing the problem, and the chances of success of a coordinated international response.

Yes, the area to be policed is very large. But this isn’t a matter of just sailing around hoping to encounter pirate ships, or hoping to be in the right place at the right time. I assume we have the ability to identify and track most of the ships belonging to these pirates, to share the needed information (though not the sources and methods) with merchant vessels, and to direct force where it is needed in a timely way, especially if we have a larger multinational force of ships in the area. I am also assuming that some of the tagging and tracking means available are clandestine, and are unlikely to be discussed in public.

I also suspect that the economic and other hurdles that need to be cleared so that merchant ships can better defend themselves can be cleared quickly with vigorous, multinational government involvement.

I am somewhat shocked that Kotzabasis would recommend air raids on the home towns of the Somali pirates. No honorable man would defend the intentional killing of the women and children of one’s adversaries as a means of deterring those adversaries. I thought C-G was more chivalrous than that.

Maybe it’s an old-fashioned American outlook based on too many cowboy movies, but I was brought up to believe there were certain acceptable and unacceptable ways of handling these kinds of problems with banditry. Arming and funding more people to ride shotgun on the stagecoach is certainly called for. And sending out posses to track and engage the bandits, and either apprehend or kill them, is also appropriate and in bounds. But sending people to shoot up the towns and encampments where the bandits’ families are located? Not OK.

Kotzabasis says,

Dan Kervick

Thanks for your intellectually amicable and positive response to my post. I’m however surprised that you so facilely assume that these raids will intentionally be killing women and children. The latter will be killed only if the pirates adopt the tactics of the terrorists and use women and children as human shields. So if there is no intentional killing my ‘honor’ and ‘chivalry’ are not besmirched.

Moreover, if you are prepared to put ‘stagecoach shotguns’ and send “out posses to track and engage the bandits” then you have to go the whole hog. You cannot exterminate the scourge of piracy by half measures or by chivalric ones.

Posted by Paul Norheim, Apr 16 2009, 7:54PM – Link

A comment to the exchange between Kotzabasis and Dan Kervick.

Kotzabasis says:

“I’m however surprised that you so facilely assume that these raids will intentionally be killing women and children. The latter will be killed only if the pirates adopt the tactics of the terrorists and use women and children as human shields.”.

Of course no single innocent human being will be killed intentionally by the Americans (that would be bad PR). But if you attack by “relentless means, i.e., by air and commando raids the Somali towns from which piracy stems”, much more innocent civilians are likely to die than those killed by pirates.

This is an excellent illustration of a certain paradox, namely between those “irregular” elements who target non-combatants (or, in direct terrorist operations: civilians), and a regular army targeting the enemy in ways that inevitably kill a lot of civilians, not because they are targets, but because the regular army decides to target the enemy by means that often, and inevitably, kill more civilians than the irregular elements (pirates/terrorists) do.

When you look at the tactics and outcome of some recent events (like the Israeli attack in Gaza, and the Sri Lanka`n army against the Tamil Tigers), it is indeed very difficult to distinguish between “terrorists (who) use women and children as human shields”, and states who send their armies to kill indiscriminately. If you look at statistics regarding the percentage of civilians killed in wars during the last hundred years, you would come to the conclusion that the respect for civilian lives seem to have diminished drastically – regardless of terrorists, guerillas, or pirates. The regular armies and the politicians behind them have their significant share in this development.

There is no point in mentioning Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki to prove that: Iraq is a fresh example.

How many innocent civilians did Saddam Hussein kill? And how many innocent civilians did Clinton and Bush kill – unintentionally?

To me it`s always been difficult to distinguish between terrorist methods and Kotzabasis`”relentless means”. For poor, innocent women and children, hit unintentionally, I would imagine that this distinction would make no sense.

Posted by Dan Kervick, Apr 16 2009, 9:49PM – Link


I may have misinterpreted you. There are some people who have recently advocated the *intentional* targeting of the pirates’ towns and kin in order to teach the pirates a lesson. You instead seem to be advocating going after the pirates themselves, and regard whatever happens to the communities around them as collateral damage brought on by the pirates decision to live among other people.

I appreciate that when you talk about “exterminating the scourge of piracy”, you are only logically implying that it is the scourge that must be exterminated, not the people. I hope that’s all you mean. Because as for the people themselves, I think experience with banditry shows that it is by no means necessary to exterminate all the bandits – even if such a thing were possible – in order the deter them from banditry. It is only necessary to change the cost-benefit analysis with which they operate. When it becomes to hard to profit from banditry, and too risky, the banditry ends.

This isn’t a half-measure. It is just a question on of re-asserting the rule of law without inflicting more death and pain on our fellow human beings than is necessary.

Unlike the case with some terrorists perhaps, the pirates do not hide continually among civilian populations plotting their crimes. They frequently float around in boats on the open ocean. Thus, if they are to be targeted for attack, there is no excuse for not targeting them when they are out there on the high seas, away from innocent people. If one can kill or apprehend some transgressor in a way that doesn’t risk the lives of innocents, then one should do so. It is not relevant whether we can pin the “fault” for the innocent deaths on the wrongdoer. What is relevant is that we avoid causing absolutely unnecessary deaths, whom ever is to be assigned the ultimate fault for those deaths.

Let’s not build these bandits up into something more than they are. What is needed now is stepped-up global policing of international shipping lanes, and that calls for increased levels of economic, manpower and intelligence commitment. The pirates are not an army, and civilization isn’t crumbling. We just need to invest more resources than we have previously.

Posted by kotzabasis, Apr 17 2009, 1:18AM – Link

Dan Kervick

Of course you don’t have “to exterminate all the bandits,” and your “cost-benefit analysis” is a perfect measure that would end such banditry. But to reach that measure that would deter the pirates from practicing their deadly enterprise one cannot do it by “half-measures.” It would be a half-measure to draw the gun and not shoot at your enemy. However, your “rule of law” is not a half-measure but no measure at all. These are lawless people that no law will ever restrain their actions.

I’m afraid you are too well- intentioned and too replete with humane genes that disqualify you from being a pragmatic strategist in deadly conflicts. No war has ever being fought clinically without the spilling of innocent blood. The price of freedom and the continuation of a civilized society at times is quite high. Nothing of great value is costless. The question always is whether people have the sagacity, the will, and mettle to pay the price.

Paul Norheim

This is a ‘straitjacket’ detachment from reality Paul. An “excellent illustration” that totally destroys your fabricated “paradox” is Iraq that by indisputable statistics shows that more civilians were killed by “irregular elements” i.e., by terrorists, than by the regular army of the U.S. and its allies. And to infer, sarcastically, that Americans don’t kill intentionally because that would give them “bad PR,” is to denigrate shamefully U.S. armed personnel who have been trained not to kill civilians, unlike the terrorists who are trained to kill them deliberately. .

Posted by Dan Kervick, Apr 17 2009, 7:37AM – Link

“These are lawless people that no law will ever restrain their actions.”

You seem to be confusing enforcement of the rule of law with respect for the law, Kotzabasis. Obviously, these pirates have no motivation to obey the law simply because it is the law. They are not law-abiding people.

For such people, reassertion of the rule of law always requires the imposition of harsh, credible penalties. Some percentage might be deterred by the mere credible threat of these penalties. But others will only be prevented from violating the rules of the road on the high seas by the actual infliction of the penalties.

I didn’t say that we should draw the gun and not use it. I said that in this case it seems likely that whatever force needs to be applied can be applied away from land, and away from innocent people. Yes, sometimes innocent people are killed in justifiable actions. But we shouldn’t recklessly endanger innocent lives just to prove our “will” or “mettle”, not when we can bring the required force to bear without endangering those innocents.

While the pirates aren’t motivated by respect for international rules, they are, as you have pointed out, motivated by profit. As it becomes less and less likely for the pirates that they will profit from attempted acts of piracy, and more and more likely that they will lose their lives or liberty, their banditry will be brought to an end.

Posted by kotzabasis, Apr 17 2009, 9:45AM – Link

Dan Kervick

Lawless people are not concerned with what MIGHT HAPPEN to them if they break the law, but, as you correctly say, by the “actual infliction of the harsh penalties’ imposed upon them, and I would add in this case wherever they are, on sea or land. It would be strategically foolish and inutile to confine one’s tactical operations solely on the “high seas” as well as reveal one’s tactics to one’s enemy. Just a thought experiment. If one had credible intelligence of a high concentration of pirates on land that by hitting them one would have inflicted upon them a devastating blow from which they could never recover, it would be utterly doltish not to use such an opportunity that would shorten the war and overall casualties just because it could entail that some innocent people would be killed.

I used the “draw of the gun” figuratively, not that you said it, in response to your “stagecoach” post, that if you draw it you have to shoot your deadly foe wherever he is, even in a ‘crowded street.’

War has too many imponderables to compute them beforehand with algorithmic precision. McNamara’s “fog of war” is the constant condition. That is why people, and even professional soldiers, avoid it justifiably like the plague. But once one has decided to ‘unsheathe the sword’ then like the “feudal knights one has to make “literal mincemeat of one’s enemies, leaving the clergy to handle the morals,” to quote the great Austrian writer Robert Musil.

Posted by Dan Kervick, Apr 17 2009, 10:25AM – Link

“Just a thought experiment. If one had credible intelligence of a high concentration of pirates on land that by hitting them one would have inflicted upon them a devastating blow from which they could never recover, it would be utterly doltish not to use such an opportunity that would shorten the war and overall casualties just because it could entail that some innocent people would be killed.”

This sort of scenario paints an unrealistic picture of the pirates as some kind of “pirate army” that is best countered by attrition of their numbers until they surrender. I don’t think it works that way. The pirates are fishermen, who have taken to using their fishing trawlers to mount pirate attacks. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden has become a lucrative profession, and people will continue to pursue that profession as long as it remains lucrative. There is no fixed supply of pirates, just as there is no fixed supply of investment bankers. There is no pirate army to defeat.

We can’t bomb all the fishermen in Somalia, nor would that make sense. There is simply no need for this kind of overkill. The pirates attacked a US-flagged ship earlier this month, and that mistake resulted in an extended nuisance, the rescue of the captain, a week of media pants-wetting, three dead pirates and one captured pirate. This outcome is going to have a deterrent effect, and the pirates were dealt with out on the water. With stepped up resources and commitment, we can turn this piracy business into a non-viable enterprise.

Posted by kotzabasis, Apr 18 2009, 12:22AM – Link

It was a thought experiment and you missed its point.

You are digressing into ‘softer areas’ from your previous posts and I’ve nothing to add. Piracy now has become to you an ‘economic’ issue and merely an “extended nuisance” and an entertaining vaudevillian play, “media-pants wetting.”

Join the debate

Obsessed Denial of Liberals of Success of the Surge

By Con George-Kotzabasis

All the Sancho Panzas of The Washington Note riding on their donkeys and their Don Quixote, Clemons himself, riding his ‘dishevelled’ steed, are attacking windmills in their intellectually ungracious mean-spirited witless futile attempt to discredit the Surge and deny the great success it was in bringing a reversal of fortune in an almost lost war as a result of the initial strategic mistakes of American strategists, which I identified in a paper of mine back in August 2003.

The Surge being a strategic victory for the U.S. not only militarily and politically in Iraq, especially if democracy is consolidated in the country as it seems to be happening with the provincial elections just held, but by blazing its winning footprints on the soil of Iraq is showing the way, and heralding, how the rest of the jihadists, in this borderless war against them, can be defeated.

Bob Woodward in his book Bush At War depicts with a cascade of clear irrefutable evidence that the sharp instrument that cut the umbilical cord of the insurgents with some of the Iraqi populace was the deployment of Special Forces that ratcheted up “the heavy-handed counterinsurgency methods” by killing or capturing their higher echelons and spreading fear among the ranks of the insurgents. Coupled with these hard measures was the soft embedment and quartering of U.S. troops in the neighbourhoods of Baghdad and other towns where the insurgents were previously residing and dominating. It was these two tactics and the ‘revolt’ of both Sunnis and Shi’tes against al Qaeda and the Sadrist militias respectively that stopped the sectarian killings and ushered greater security in Iraq. To say, like Clemons does, that “bribery of local leaders” and a less “heavy-handed’” approach were more significant in subduing the insurgency indicates that he has not read Woodward’s book, or if he has, he deliberately refuses to acknowledge the factors that led to the defeat of the insurgency as an outcome of his ungracious and partisan lapse to give credit where credit is due, to Bush’s determination to implement the Surge.

And all the other cacklings of the excited and ‘emotional’ geese “how many of my descendants you’ve killed”, to quote Dan Kervick in his wrath against the ‘warmongers’– a disciple of the two philosophers mentioned below– will not save the Rome of their intellectual infantilism and political dilettantism, even under the great names of Bertrand Russel and David Hume.