The ghosts of pirates

LONDON — The drama in the high seas off the coast of Somalia with a group of pirates holding an American sea captain hostage is one more of the costly legacies of the Bush administration.

The story and the rise in piracy throughout the Gulf of Aden is another example of how the Bush administration’s single-minded pursuit of its war on terror actually undermined security worldwide.

More than 20,000 ships pass through the Gulf of Aden annually, including 4 percent of the world’s oil supply.

With ship owners routing vessels around the tip of Africa rather than running the gauntlet of the pirate-infested channels in the Gulf of Aden, shipping officials say transport costs have gone up and the time per trip has increased.

The long journey adds an estimated 14 days steaming time from the Arabian Gulf to Europe and eight days to America.

The international naval task force that was sent to protect shipping may have deterred some attacks but cannot rid the region of piracy. There are too few warships to patrol at least a million square miles of sea.

The way to effectively reduce the risk of piracy, experts believe, is to increase security on land, and specifically to take away their safe haven in the failed state of Somalia. Somalia has become a haven for pirates because most of it is lawless. So how’s that the fault of the Bush administration?

The greater part of Somalia collapsed into anarchy after the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. The Clinton administration sent American marines to the aid of a starving population caught in the chaos. The Marines were in turn attacked. Eventually, Clinton ordered forces to go after one of the brutal warlords, Mohamed Farrah Aidid. But the U.S. suffered a humiliating defeat in 1993 at the hands of Aidid and a host of tribal warlords, turned tail and left the country. The defeat was the basis for the Hollywood movie “Black Hawk Down.”

When the American-led coalition chased Al Qaeda fighters out of Afghanistan in late 2001, Pentagon planners feared they might establish new bases in Africa and began training African armies to handle the potential threat. Their worst fears were realized (or so they thought) when an alliance of Somali Islamists that called itself The Union of Islamic Courts chased the warlords out of much of the country and established a rough-and-ready Islamic brand of law and order.

The Somali people were for the most part relieved to have a functioning government after years of anarchy, but the Bush administration was not pleased. It believed the new government was harboring terrorists linked to the bombing of two American embassies in Africa in 1998.

Washington had no appetite for going back into Somalia, particularly with the ghosts of Black Hawk Down. So the CIA poured money into a clumsy attempt to create an alternative government out of a collection of mutually hostile warlords.

When that plan floundered, the Pentagon tried Plan B. It organized an invasion of Somalia by that country’s traditional enemies, the Ethiopians, in 2006. Americans provided intelligence, aviation, naval support and a few special forces, but the fighting was done by Ethiopians. The invasion inflicted utter devastation on the capital, Mogadishu, and toppled the new Islamic government that was making progress stabilizing the country.

That plan failed, too. It precipitated a new round of civil war in Somalia and has left the country in the grip of a humanitarian crisis that, according to the United Nations, rivals Darfur. The Ethiopians have withdrawn, and with the exception of Somaliland (a separatist region in the north) Somalia has no effective government.

And so it has become a haven for local pirates, who pay off local warlords as necessary and operate with impunity.

How could our government have made such a blunder without provoking a wave of moral indignation from the American people? The simple answer is that most of the mainstream American media didn’t know, didn’t care, and did not want to spend the money or take the risks they would have incurred to report a nasty American proxy war in Africa.

For the most part, it is only the Africans who are paying the price for this American policy failure.

In fact, if it were not for the pirates and a riveting drama of one brave American captain held captive, few Americans would have heard anything at all about Somalia in the past few years.

Read more about Somali pirates:

History repeats itself

Lessons of the high seas

Somali pirates hold US Navy at bay

Somalia's pirates