The Pentagon says it is looking into how it might act on a draft U.N. Security Council resolution, being circulated by the United States, that would, for the first time, authorize military action against pirate bases inside Somalia. But a senior American admiral is expressing skepticism about the plan.
The draft resolution calls on all countries to actively fight piracy off the Somali coast, as many countries including the United States have been doing. The U.S. draft also adds a 12-month authorization for foreign forces to enter Somali territory and airspace to "take all necessary measures" to find and stop pirates, if the transitional Somali government agrees.
But in Bahrain on Friday, Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the Middle East, said he does not need any more authority to fight pirates. He told reporters it would be difficult to identify pirate bases in Somalia because they blend in with the local population, and he said any attacks would likely result in civilian casualties.
Admiral Gortney said piracy can not be ended through U.S. military action alone. He said to do more on piracy he needs better cooperation among all the world's navies, but also a bigger security effort by the shipping industry and improved stability, economic development and rule of law in Somalia in order to reduce the number of men who turn to a life of crime on the high seas. And the admiral says he needs one more thing.
"We need the international community to provide us a mechanism that when we capture pirates we have a process to hold them and then take them to a court of law and hold them accountable for their actions if they're found guilty," he said.
Admiral Gortney says his forces rescued some men on a small boat this week whose engine had gone out and who had no food or water left. The sailors found rifles and grenades in the boat and concluded the men were pirates, but because they had not been observed doing anything wrong the troops had to treat them as "mariners in distress." So they were rescued then set free in Yemen.
In recent months, U.S. military and civilian officials have cited many difficulties in trying to deal with piracy in the region, including the ones mentioned by Admiral Gortney, as well as the logistical difficulty of trying to police a body of water as large as the Gulf of Aden and dangers any military action would pose to hostages held on pirated ships. Pirates currently hold about 300 hostages on 17 ships off the Horn of Africa.
On Friday, Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman said there are still a lot of details to work out before the U.S. military would be ready to more aggressive in dealing with pirates, or to take the fight onto land.
"I would tell you that there are many issues associated with this, and you've hit upon a lot of them. There are many challenges to this. There are legal issues out there. There are practical issues with respect to how you would go about doing this. And the United States government is trying to take a look at this in a broad way. And we, as part of that, are certainly going to look at what some of the military aspects would be. We are in the process of that. It's ongoing," he said.
Whitman says military action alone can not solve the piracy problems. "I think there are many that are seeking a simple military solution, or solely a military solution, to address the piracy issue. And I think we need to take a more comprehensive look at this. And while there may be a military component, this is an issue that has to be addressed more broadly," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be at the United Nations next week to talk about the piracy resolution with representatives of other Security Council member nations. Earlier this month, the council extended its mandate for naval anti-piracy patrols, but it is not clear when the new draft adding action on land and in Somali airspace might come to a vote.