QUANTICO, Va: The U.S. military’s rescue of a kidnapped American ship captain yesterday was “textbook,” but the issue of piracy is likely to worsen in the absence of a systemic solution, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said April 13.
Off the Somali coast yesterday, U.S. special operations snipers on the USS Bainbridge shot and killed three pirates who had held hostage the captain of the Maersk-Alabama cargo ship on a lifeboat for five days. Military officials said Capt. Richard Phillips’ life was in imminent danger at the time of his rescue.
“It was textbook,” Gates said of the operation. “They were patient. They got the right people and the right equipment in place, and then did what they do.”
Gates, speaking at the Marine Corps War College here, said two groups of military operators were involved in the rescue — one based in the region and one based in the United States — with each requiring separate authority from President Barack Obama. “And the approval was given virtually immediately in both cases,” Gates said.
Despite the operational precision of the rescue, however, the question of how to deal with the broader issue of piracy still looms large, with 111 incidents reported last year on the east coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, according to the International Chamer of Commerce.
“Is there a way to deal with this in a systemic way that reduces the risk and brings the international community together in a productive way to deal with the problem?” Gates said. “I think we’re going to end up spending a fair amount of time on this in the administration, seeing if there is a way to try and mitigate this problem of piracy.”
Gates said the historical case of Southeast Asia’s solution to its piracy problem does not generally apply to the current Somali-based issue. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries, for instance, central governments played a role in stemming piracy, he said.
“[They] acquired some capabilities — and we helped them in some of those capabilities in terms of surveillance and patrolling — and because each of those countries has a functioning government, the piracy problem in Southeast Asia has been dramatically reduced,” he said.
“The problem is easier to deal with when the surrounding land — as in the case of Southeast Asia and the Straits of Malacca — is controlled by real governments that have real capabilities, which is not the case in Somalia,” he explained. “So it is a serious international problem, and it’s probably going to get worse.”
Gates, emphasizing the limitations of a purely military approach, said some have suggested bypassing the central government of Somalia and instead establishing relationships with officials of functioning local governments there.
“There is no purely military solution to it,” he said. “And as long as you’ve got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small, there’s really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids.”
Gates noted the four pirates involved in kidnapping the Maersk-Alabama captain were 17 to 19 years old, and he cited the dangerous combination of untrained youth and arms.
“Untrained teenagers with heavy weapons,” he told the group of 30 students and faculty members at the Marine Corps War College. “Everybody in the room knows the consequences of that.”
Gates underscored that the piracy issue will likely be an important agenda item in coming weeks.
“All I can tell you is I am confident we will be spending a lot of time in the situation room over the next few weeks trying to figure out what in the world to do about this problem,” he said.