Christian Living

africamatters 05/07/09

Failed States, Faux Piracy & U.S. "Smart Power"

The lone Somali "pirate" who was captured by American forces last week is on U.S. soil.  He sees a New York judge today.  The teenager is expected to be charged with piracy and hostage taking.

(Editor's Note from Sarah:  Today's blog (below) is written by Tony Das.  He will be contributing to Africa Matters from time to time.  Das has decades of reporting experience from Africa.  Enjoy reading his article...)

In 1979 as a junior officer in what was then the United States Information Agency , I visited with a senior US Cultural Affairs Officer. We drove along a scenic corniche lined with classic Italianate buildings and overlooking the ocean. We dined and drank excellent Chianti at a fine Italian restaurant and spent the rest of that weekend with his family at a gorgeous beach where we ate fresh seafood and fruit. It was Mogadishu, capital of the former Italian colony of Somalia.

Today Somalia is a failed state, its recent iconography being the movie "Blackhawk Down" that horrified us with images of the bodies of heroic US peacekeepers dragged through the streets of the capital by rabid thugs and video of what has most recently been termed "piracy" off the Somali coast.

Mainstream American media focus on what they call "piracy" by Somali terrorists, and we contemplate "taking the fight to the pirates" by attacking them in their home ports. The waters from the Suez Canal in the north through the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean are critical to commercial shipping and the right of free passage by legitimate warships from all nations. Taking the fight to the mainland is a legitimate tactical option.

However, long-term strategy that would preclude us from facing these tactical situations in the future lies in an approach that combines "three Ds": diplomacy, development and defense. That's the foundation of a "smart power" concept conceived by the administration of George W. Bush and openly embraced by President Obama and his current Secretaries of State and Defense.

The commander of the Pentagon's newest unified command, the African Command based in Stuttgart, Germany, General William "Kip" Ward described to the Senate Armed Services Committee in written testimony last month his command's unique mission. AFRICOM's ultimate goal is to achieve three "end state" scenarios through US training:

1.)   African militaries can provide their continent's own security;

2.)   African nations can deal with extremists;

3.)   Africa can boast professional militaries subject to democratic civilian control.

It may not be politically correct to say so, but when bad things happen in Africa, Africans don't want to rely upon white guys with guns to keep the peace, and leaders of the US and its western allies don't want to have to explain to their constituents why their loved-ones in uniform are being sent to African countries that they've never heard of to prevent Africans from ethnic groups they've also never even heard-of from killing each other.

AFRICOM's strategy is to utilize very few uniformed troops while emphasizing the role of military partnership with civilian US government agencies, non-governmental organizations, faith-based organizations and contractors. Those partners have expertise in "capacity building": the nurturing of civic and physical infrastructures that would turn failed states such as Somalia and reconstructing states such as Liberia and Sierra Leone into stable nations. Young men whose societies offer jobs and basic financial security do not risk their lives by joining Al-Qaeda-supported organizations in the Maghreb or taking to small boats to attack international shipping off the east African coast.

Real pirates are thieves who gain remuneration from the value of the ships and cargo that they capture. The thugs who seized the Maersk Alabama and other vessels in the Gulf of Aden took hostages for ransom. That makes them terrorists, no different from those who have seized airliners and demanded the return of jailed terrorists and/or money in return for sparing the passengers and crew. Had they been true pirates, whey would have taken the Alabama's cargo - food aid from the American people to Africa - and shared it among their starving Somali countrymen. Ironically, mainstream western media would likely have afforded them some Robin Hood panache and they would have saved the US taxpayer the cost of shipping that food from the Alabama's intended destination of Mombassa, Kenya overland to Somalia. The history of US-African relations is a collection of ironies. The namesake of the destroyer USS Bainbridge, which led the rescue of the Alabama's captain, was Commodore William Bainbridge. He was a hero of the first Barbary Wars more than two centuries ago after the United States refused to pay ransom to those who seized American ships off the north African coast and took hostages. There may be some honor among thieves - but none among terrorists.

Tony Das is President/COO of Global Markets Consulting Group and has more than 30-years of experience in Africa as a journalist, diplomat and businessman.