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Somali Piracy - An Overstated Threat?

While the piracy problem off the Somali coast is getting a lot of media attention, exactly how big a threat to maritime safety do the pirates pose?

John Patch is an associate professor for strategic intelligence at the US Army War College and a retired Navy surface warfare officer and career intelligence officer. He's written an article – appearing on the US Naval Institute website – on Somali piracy. His comments are not to be taken as official US government policy.

In an interview with VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua, he says the Somali piracy problem may be overstated.

"Even with the incident of a US-flagged vessel taken, there's quite a lot of hype involved. World opinion and sometimes US opinion as well is often driven by passion, incidents of the moment and US pride. And we've got to be careful about formulating policy on those kinds of things," he says.

Do statistics support an increase in Somali piracy activity? Commander Patch says, "Are the numbers up, numbers down? That's kind of debatable. The data behind the actual seizures is very varied. For example, if they have an approach by a small boat in the middle of the night, sometimes, with no actual piracy incident, that's still counted as an incident…. I'm not so sure that piracy is actually escalating out of control right now. My sense is, with the naval task force in the Gulf of Aden escorting daily many, many ships with safe passages, you've got to compare the number of piracy incidents to the actual safe passages and you'll see that the instances are still very low."

The pirates, however, are now expanding operations outside the Gulf to the Indian Ocean, which is too large to adequately patrol.

"I would say that's a valid concern. Big ocean, little ships. There are only so many US Navy ships and, frankly, so many international naval capabilities, navy assets. So, all of those nations, including the US, have to pick and choose where they're going to place the resources. My argument in the article I think is still valid. And that is if you rack and stack global national security interests for the US and, frankly, for other nations, there are much more important issues that have to be addressed with a naval presence. Piracy falls very low on the scale of important global issues that affect national interests," he says.

If tough action is not taken against the pirates, however, could it make the United States and other nations appear weak and lacking political will?

Patch says, "It may perhaps in the short term, but I think there have been many famous quotes over the years by leaders that say if you base your policies on pride and passion and public opinion, you will go in the wrong directions. So I think we have to be cautious with that."

He says the Maersk Alabama has a lot of people "shaking their fists." He advises, though, it would be better to "keep an eye on the big picture and look at the end game."

As for there being enough international will to solve the problem, Patch says, " I think if you put a dollar figure beside what it would require to solve the problem ashore – and in Somali waters you're talking a huge international requirement of essentially nation building…I don't think anybody wants to sign that check right now. My sense is there will not be a lot of international resolve to attempt to do that in Somalia."

Some have suggested a very targeted military response, such as destroying the pirate mother ships or the pirate leader mansions built from ransom money. Patch advises caution there as well.

"If there was any kind of effort to move ashore, if I was making any recommendations, it would be to ensure it's a multi-lateral approach…sanctioned by the UN. That is, very clear and specific information on what the objective is that you're going after…. Imagine the ramifications if we hit the wrong house, the wrong village and we have 50 dead Somali civilians on our hands. That is an issue that might result in much worse situations and, frankly, a policy outcome that the US doesn't necessarily want," he says.

He stress his views are not those of the US government of the war college.

"My sense is we don't have enough will, enough wherewithal and enough information to prosecute a sound land campaign. We're pretty busy elsewhere. Two and a half other wars going on right now," he says.

Patch says that US leaders are "mulling over" what actions to take against policy and it appears they favor a multi-national approach. He recommends using "law enforcement ships rather than warships against the pirates.

'We're talking Coast Guard vessels, maybe perhaps ten or fifteen nations could provide their coast guard-type vessels with law enforcement detachments on board to try to patrol Somali waters and stop those boats before they get out in the open ocean and threaten shipping," he says.