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22/04/2011 | India Needs a New Strategy to Deal With Somali Piracy

Saurav Jha

The plight of the Indian freighter MV Asphalt Venture has added a new dimension to India's fight against piracy in the Indian Ocean.


In a first, a spokesperson for pirates based in Harardhere, Somalia, announced last week that they had reached a "consensus" decision to retain seven Indian sailors as hostages -- even though the pirates had released the ship itself after receiving the full ransom from its Mumbai-based owners. The move is an attempt to achieve the release of about 120 Somali pirates currently held in Indian prisons following a series of Indian naval actions in the Indian Ocean over the past few months. 

That the pirates hope to negotiate a prisoner exchange suggests new levels of both confidence and organization. Unfortunately this new assertiveness could well be the result of encouragement from al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab, which currently controls half of Somalia. That raises the specter of Somalia becoming a terrorist state financed by pirate revenues, with severe consequences for Indian Ocean security. India can no longer afford a purely defensive strategy on the high seas, but must now look seriously at both economic and political intervention in the Horn of Africa.

Most of the debate in India and elsewhere is currently focused on the need to codify a law to deal specifically with piracy; India is currently trying the Somali pirates under the standard Indian penal code. There is also some discussion of whether the Indian government should gradually expand the rules of engagement in the fight against piracy.

Regardless of how these administrative and procedural issues are eventually resolved, however, the battle against piracy will not be won through police or military action alone. A sustainable solution requires treating the root cause of piracy: the collapse of the Somali state and with it the prospect of economic development within its borders. While the international community is acutely aware that the piracy epidemic can only be solved on land, the West has become wary of lengthy and costly stabilization operations.

New Delhi simply cannot afford to look the other way, however. Piracy imposes a tremendous cost on India's maritime trade and threatens its prospects as a trading superpower. Moreover, India has already shown its mettle in Afghanistan, restoring infrastructure and rebuilding communities as part of its $1.5 billion aid package. Given the kind of credit lines India is extending to various parts of Africa, an Afghanistan-like effort in Somalia is well within India's economic and political capabilities.

Importantly for India, it already has a partner in the Horn of Africa that can help with stabilization activities in Somalia: Ethiopia. In the past few months, there have been more than 10 high-level exchanges between the Indian and Ethiopian governments. Riding on the back of nearly $5 billion in approved Indian investments, Ethiopia has emerged as one of India's closest partners in Africa. It is also the partner with the most at stake in Somalia and an inveterate foe of al-Shabaab. Following Ethiopia's failed intervention in 2007-2009, the terrorist group has managed to take control of south and central Somalia. More ominously, it is now widely believed that al-Shabaab extends protection to pirates in return for a share of their revenue. This arrangement is evidenced by the shift of the fulcrum of pirate activities away from the traditional northern sanctuaries toward Harardhere in central Somalia.

Because one of the main reasons for al-Shabaab's rise is support from Eritrea, which is looking to contain archenemy Ethiopia's influence in the region, India must use its diplomatic resources to work toward improving Ethiopian-Eritrean relations. India can also pressure Iran to use its newfound ties with Eritrea to temper its activities in Somalia, thereby removing one of al-Shabaab's key patrons. 

This could pave the way for the introduction of a sizable number of Ethiopian troops into Somalia under a U.N. banner. By all accounts, the current 8,000 U.N.-mandated troops contributed by Uganda and Burundi are grossly inadequate. On a recent visit to Somalia, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni complained that the international community "did not take the Somali problem seriously enough." In fact, the African Union, which runs the Somali operation, wants at least 20,000 peacekeepers in the region.

Ethiopia certainly seems keen to help fix Somalia. During his visit to India last December, Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn did not mince his words: "There should be a naval blockade and no-fly zone order over Somalia," Desalegn said, adding, "The root problem of piracy is in inland Somalia, not the sea. We are telling the world to solve the issue of Somalia first before going at solving the issue in the sea." 

India should play a central role in the enforcement of any such quarantine of Somalia, which seems increasingly necessary given the burgeoning piracy problem. Taking control of Somalia's coastline in coalition with other contributing nations would allow the space to rebuild Somalia's decimated fishing industry -- probably the single greatest impetus to piracy. The mission would include curbing foreign mechanized trawlers and toxic-waste dumping, both of which have destroyed the livelihoods of a number of coastal communities, leading entire Somali tribes to resort to piracy.

Using its own experience with fishing cooperatives, India can help foster interim self-governing communities by investing in fishing-equipment manufacturing and food processing, as well as soft loans and extension programs. While Indian intervention would focus on the coast, Ethiopian troops could join the current AU force in taking on al-Shabaab and assorted pirates inland.

With the potential for Somalia to be used as a terrorist launch pad clearly growing, a stakeholder approach with India at the helm is urgently needed. Concerted Indian action will not only mitigate a threat to its own economic rise, but it will also establish beyond any doubt that India is a net provider of security on the ocean that bears its name.

**Saurav Jha studied economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy issues and clean energy development in Asia. His first book for Harper Collins India, "The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power," was published in January 2010. He also works as an independent consultant in the energy sector in India. He can be reached at

World Politics Review (Estados Unidos)


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