A thoughtful post from Elizabeth Dickinson on Foreign Policy’s Passport blog highlights the alarming reports this morning that the U.S. military is “considering attacks on pirate bases on land” and asks:
Does the United States know what they’re getting into? Piracy experts have long suggested that the root of the problem is indeed on land. But air strikes on Somali bases would be dangerously close to a U.S. military operation in Somalia — the kind that the country has avoided since Blackhawk down in 1994.
Let’s think hypothetically about what might happen if strikes go ahead. U.S. onland intervention will surely anger al Shabaab, the Islamist militant wing that controls an alarming percentage of Somali territory and is the biggest single threat to Somali stability. Already, the Somali government is struggling to convince the country that its relatively pro-Western stance is for the greater good. That argument will lose all weight if and when the U.S. starts airstrikes. Forget about the government’s effectiveness, and forget about any hopes that al Shabaab will disarm. This would fuel the fire. No, we shouldn’t kneel to the demands of al Shabaab, but nor should we ignore that their ire will be taken out on the already dilapidated Somali population.
Talk about an escalation.
I would argue that the issue is not whether we ‘anger’ al Shabaab or not, but the fact that such airstrikes would make it easier for al Shabaab to portray themselves as nationalists fighting off foreign intervention, just as they did with earlier Ethiopian incursions. At the end of the day, airstrikes are easy, coming up with a long-term strategy to help Somalia emerge from failed state status is the true task at hand, and robbing al Shabaab of its popular appeal must be part of that strategy.
N.B. Via the New York Times’ Lede blog, a “Live Piracy Map” from the International Maritime Bureau shows that there have been dozens of attacks involving hostages this year, with more than 200 hostages still being held by gangs of pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
John Norris contributed to this post.