The Straits of Malacca are losing their status as the world’s most dangerous waters in exchange for a stretch of water off one of the world’s most lawless failed states. The past week has witnessed what has become the most dramatic naval standoff since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The only difference is that this “crisis” involves state and non-state actors, mysterious heavy weapons cargo and the worst case scenario is only the death of the “Faina” crew.
Since 1991 Somalia has been crying for help from the international community and that cry was largely ignored. The failed attempt by the US landing in Somalia after the first Persian Gulf War and images of dead US Servicemen being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu left Somalia to its own devices. Only recently did Ethiopia take a leading role in order to attempt establishing some type of legitimate government and peace. Some military assistance was offered by the US, largely through the bombing of “terrorist” positions resisting Ethiopian troops. This action was somewhat successful but, it appears Somalia has finally taken its rightful place as a serious and shameful problem for the world.
Since the September 25th seizure of the Faina, the US has sent several ships to blockade her in effort to ensure the pirates do not attempt to offload the armaments and ship them to their non-governmental supporters in Somalia. The fear being it would help destroy the little progress made there by Ethiopian troops. Russia has dispatched a frigate to the region, due to arrive any day, to ensure no Russian citizens aboard the Faina are harmed. Finally, the recent announcement that the EU would create an armada and deploy to the region for the express purpose of securing shipping past the Horn of Africa to maintain shipping though the region and ensure the continuation of food relief to Somalia.
It would appear that Somalia has finally cried long enough for some sort of token attention from the world at large. Unfortunately, the timing is poor. With the global financial crisis hanging in the balance and the $ 700 billion bailout package approved by Washington in recent days, there is no certainty that the financial crisis will even be avoided. That casts a shadow over any government willing to pay regular ransoms in the range of 10-20 million dollars to ensure the continuity of shipping. The alternative may be to avoid the area completely or if passage must be made, it is to be done under military escort by the EU armada, the US Navy or even the Russian Navy.
Of course there is another option and that is to actually respond to the question of Somalia despite the failure in the 1990s. That being said, we have no examples of successful state-building efforts to draw upon as a point of reference. The Balkans were not about state making, but state dismantling. Iraq and Afghanistan are a mess and largely unsuccessful. This lack of successful examples and the combination of a faltering global economy dramatically reduces the will to provide a strategic and comprehensive Somalia rescue initiative. This coupled with the fact that the Washington bailout plan may not even keep the economy afloat limits any longer term solution. The end result may be a return to a “Battle of the Atlantic” style of military escort through dangerous waters to ensure successful shipping. However, the risk with this is that the pirates will become more and more daring and risk combat casualties to ensure their only sources of national revenue–ransom.
Still, none of these options assist us with the crisis at hand. While the haul of T-72 tanks would made a wondrous addition to the Somali shooting gallery, removing, fueling, arming and maintaining them is too much of a hassle. Of more interest are the rocket propelled grenades, portable rocket systems and other small arms. This equipment can find its way to either underground illegal arms sales or against the fledgling government in Mogadishu. But, ironically, it may find its way to the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq fighting Western troops. The irony is that the lack of interest in Somalia since 1991 may have a direct impact on the West similarly to the lack of interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. Somalia, like Afghanistan, now has the strong potential of becoming another problem caused by ignoring the implosion of a state. Somalia as the most recent failed state to make international headlines is truly at world’s end.