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An armed pirate contemplates the shore in Hobyo, Somalia. (MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images)
An armed pirate contemplates the shore in Hobyo, Somalia. (MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images)

ANDREW LUSZTYK

Somali piracy: The solution is on land, not at sea Add to ...

The saga of Somali piracy drones on without end, perpetuated by periodical, sensational media stories of daring rescues, multimillion-dollar ransoms or shocking violence. The world watches, slightly bemused or confused, while the scale, number and brutality of the attacks steadily increase. They are now more frequent and violent than ever before.

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The international community has yet to develop any serious strategy. There's a stubborn unwillingness to take a comprehensive approach to Somali piracy, to investigate its root causes and work from there. Far simpler to populate the vast waters off the coast of Somalia with a smattering of international naval task forces and claim that progress is being made. But progress is not being made. If anything, the world is falling back on old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy - clumsy, ineffective, unsophisticated, ugly - and it's costing time, money and lives.

In 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brushed off any suggestion that Somali piracy could be solved by addressing its root causes. "You've got to put out the fire before you can rebuild the house. And, right now, we have a fire raging."

Two years later, it's clear that Ms. Clinton's comments amounted to a misdiagnosis. The fire is burning hotter than ever, and the house still lies in shambles. Her statement embodies the key error of the international response: It views Somali piracy solely through the prism of security, believing that the problem can be contained and subdued through the use of military force.

The Somali transitional government's foreign minister, Mohammed Abdulahi Omar Asharq, has been one of the rare voices to state a truth that's both obvious and curiously absent from public discussion: The solution to the problem of Somali piracy is to be found on land, not at sea.

"The world has so far only responded with containment. This is not productive, or effective, or practical, or morally defensible," Mr. Asharq told a counter-piracy conference in Dubai in April. This sentiment was echoed by Augustine Mahiga, the United Nations Secretary-General's special representative for Somalia. "The approach to it must first and foremost be political. … There cannot be a military solution."

Implicit in these comments is an acknowledgment that Somali piracy did not arise suddenly or unexpectedly. For almost two decades now, foreign trawlers have poached in Somali territorial waters. Fish stocks have been decimated and coastal regions deprived of their main source of both income and sustenance. European and Asian corporations have been dumping toxic waste off Somalia's coast, poisoning the water and the people who live near it. Corrupt government officials, treated as legitimate partners by international organizations, siphon development aid and accept kickbacks from the pirates, ensuring that their activities will continue unabated.

The first Somali pirates were men from the afflicted coastal communities, jobless and starving, who organized themselves into groups to demand payment from interlopers in their waters. It didn't take long for the less well-intentioned - mainland gangs and warlords - to sniff out the lucrative opportunities and muscle in on the act. They brought with them the criminal organization and violence we are seeing increase every day.

These are all facts critical to understanding Somali piracy. They are also rarely reported on. It took attacks on international shipping lanes and pleasure craft for us to sit up and take notice.

And even then, we cast our eyes not at the Somali mainland, where the problems originated, but on the hijackings of cargo vessels, laden with oil or arms, or yachts full of vacationers. We label pirates a vile menace - terrorists, even - and send warships in a futile effort to put them down. Clearly, a new approach is needed.

The first and most critical step is for the international community to recognize that the solution to Somali piracy will not be midwifed by military measures. A real solution will require a comprehensive strategy, including elements of political reform, security and economic development.

It will need to fight corruption endemic to the key coastal regions of the country, to develop honest and motivated local partners. It will need to help replace the job opportunities wiped out by the destruction of the fishing industry. It will need to provide the security and stability necessary for international organizations to operate safely and help rebuild devastated coastal communities.

Until these measures are taken, pirate gangs will have a steady supply of recruits - young men, unemployed, hungry and desperate - drawn by lucre unavailable to them through honest means. The solution to Somali piracy will be found on land, and will need to address the problem's root causes, not its symptoms. Someone should remind Ms. Clinton that, sometimes, the most effective way of extinguishing a fire is not to fight it directly but to starve it of the oxygen on which it feeds.

Andrew Lusztyk holds a master's degree in global politics from the London School of Economics.

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