To tackle piracy, go on the offensive

Ships under the Indian flag are viewed as easy targets because owners ultimately pay up & there is no danger from on-board sharpshooters

Large navies with great deal of capital invested in them these days prepare not for great fleet battles but for the infinitely less taxing anti-piracy operations. When this role is devolved by governments to shipping companies who, in turn, pass on the authority to privately-owned vessels guarded by naval commandos, what you get is the incident off the Kerala coast. A couple of Italian Navy master sergeants on-board Enrica Lexie took pot-shots, it would seem, at medium range, slightly mobile, targets bobbing on water they identified as pirates.

The crucial question to ask is whether this identification was made instantaneously or with deliberation, and on what basis, before the shooting started? Or, was the labelling of those killed as pirates done, ex-post facto, as it afforded a convenient rationale and cover for the extra-legal killings once the Italian ship captain realised his men had fouled up and he had a problem on his hands?
If the Lexie was within the 12-mile Indian territorial limits, then the claim of eliminating persons perceived as pirates packs no credibility whatsoever and is ipso facto untenable. If, on the other hand, the Italian vessel was in international waters — the farther out the better for it, then the claim would surely require evidence of provocation offered by the fishermen or of some actions taken by them that could be interpreted, however remotely, by the Lexie crew as not just suspicious but actually threatening. But whatever the extenuating circumstances, the conclusion cannot be avoided that this was a case of “recreational shooting” indulged in by a couple of bored non-commissioned officers of the Italian Navy with itchy fingers, cocked rifles with, perhaps, telescopic sights, or sub-machine guns (which, can easily be determined by the wounds on the dead fishermen), and inadequate knowledge of the ramifications of gun-slinging. Moreover, common sense should have suggested to the Lexie commander and his gunmen that so close to the tip of India was too far for the pirates to venture. Do the Italians really think they can sell the shooting as action to pre-empt a forcible takeover of the ship? To Italy, all of Arabian Sea is piracy-zone; it is so designated by many other countries as well. In the event, the Italian naval guards were primed to expect that Keralites and Somalis are one and the same.
That said, this incident reveals the larger truth that, fed up with the menace, many countries are dealing with suspected pirates with extreme prejudice. Not so long ago, Russians captured some pirates, shackled them to their “mother ship”, and then proceeded to blow up the boat. This episode was filmed and uploaded on YouTube, there to serve as warning and deterrent to Somalis to keep off Russian merchant vessels. It has worked. There have been no cases reported since of Russian ship hijackings off the Gulf of Aden and proximal waters. By last count, some 750 sailors of different nationalities and scores of ships are prisoners of the numerous pirate combines holed up on the Somali coast. Of these, some half a dozen merchant ships and nearly 100 crew members comprise the Indian complement.
The US government has chosen commando raids to rescue American hostages, most recently on January 25 this year when Seals attacked the Somali base at Harardheere, killing all nine of the Somalis involved and freeing a US aid worker. Earlier, in April 2009, the special forces freed the Maersk Alabama and its crew from the clutches of Somali sea brigands. Indeed, forcefully taking out the pirates seems to be an effective mode for the navies of the world to adopt, a ready solution for the scourge of piracy. Indian Navy ships on anti-piracy patrols, each with a couple of marine commandos on board are, however, restrained by the Indian government from taking any offensive action. Pirates are captured and dutifully handed over to non-existent Somali authorities, ensuring their return to the same work in next to no time, there being no government worth the name in that country. This much was clear at the recent London Conference that ended February 23. The President of the transitional Somali government, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, and master of only the municipality of the capital city of Mogadishu, courtesy the African Union peace-keeping force in town, confessed he was “scared”.
Actually, the real problem is the powerful transnational mafia financing the pirate network and facilitating their nefarious activities. This mafia passes on authoritative information such as names of ships, the course they’ll take, value of cargo and extent of insurance cover.
Ships under the Indian flag are viewed as easy targets because the Indian shipowners ultimately pay up and because there is no danger from on-board sharpshooters, or from Indian Marine Commando suddenly dropping in on the scene to spoil their game. The Indian government, as usual in its do-nothing mode, is relying on the UN Contact Group on Piracy to alight on a, presumably, “responsible” solution. In the meantime, more Indian ships and sailors will pass into Somali captivity, even as, for obvious reasons, US and Russian carriers are left well enough alone.
Were the commanders of Indian naval ships authorised to take out pirates on the high seas and to destroy pirate strongholds along the Somali coast, or, alternatively, Indian merchantmen were permitted to carry if not small detachments of armed Indian Navy personnel doing guard duty, then armed private guards, the incidence of piracy against Indian vessels would reduce markedly. If, further, the Navy’s Marine Commandos were now and again tasked to free Somali-held Indian ships, it would fuel fear and uncertainty among the pirate fraternity. But imposing a new risk calculus on the pirates requires the Indian government to think and act aggressively in the national interest, something the Manmohan Singh regime avoids doing. It forswears use of force except, apparently, in the dead of night against unarmed people sleeping peacefully at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds!

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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