When great powers compete, the pirates win

The Gulf of Aden has become the latest theater for a self-defeating EU-NATO rivalry. By Bjoern H. Seibert The hijacking of two European tankers in the Gulf of Aden last Thursday shattered illusions that international naval patrols off the coast of Somalia have cured the region of its dreadful piracy epidemic. Despite the handful of ...

587341_090330_pirates12.jpg
587341_090330_pirates12.jpg

The Gulf of Aden has become the latest theater for a self-defeating EU-NATO rivalry.

By Bjoern H. Seibert

The Gulf of Aden has become the latest theater for a self-defeating EU-NATO rivalry.

By Bjoern H. Seibert

The hijacking of two European tankers in the Gulf of Aden last Thursday shattered illusions that international naval patrols off the coast of Somalia have cured the region of its dreadful piracy epidemic. Despite the handful of ships keeping tabs on the seas, the armed attackers managed to take the tankers, demand ransoms, and hold the vessels captive — all operating from small fishing boats.

Yet if the international anti-piracy squads are leaving big gaps today, things are about to get even less efficient this month as NATO forces join the existing European Union operation. True, there will be more eyes on the seas, but that is precisely the problem. The two separate missions won’t cooperate as they should; they will needlessly duplicate already expensive efforts; and the resulting disarray might even give pirates the upper hand.

The scramble to patrol the Gulf of Aden began last fall, when the EU and NATO both rushed to stop the rabble-rousing on the seas. In November, after a surge of two dozen attacks the month before, the European Union agreed to launch “Operation Atalanta.” While the EU’s force assembled, NATO sent in its rapidly deploying standing naval task forces. These vessels were set to withdraw when the EU arrived in December, a decision widely hailed for its pragmatism. But it was not to be; NATO announced a new mission last week, just as the EU considered making its own permanent. NATO’s “Allied Protector” will work in parallel with Atalanta — both deployed in the same operational area with the same task.

What is going on is no more than a maritime beauty contest between two organizations that are nominally allied and have overlapping memberships, but whose relationship has always been fraught. France’s reintegration into NATO offers just one example; the country’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is keen on building the EU’s defense structures even as he reinforces transatlantic ties. Each institution hopes to prove its superiority, and fighting piracy is a perfect stage. Who doesn’t agree that the buccaneers should go?

Everyone loves good sport, but the EU-NATO rivalry is pointless and perhaps even counterproductive in this case. To cover a vast, remote area of operations quickly, efficiently, and in the absence of host nation support, coordination between the forces is vital. With separate command structures, duplications and even contradictions are unavoidable, likely at the expense of an efficient, cohesive anti-piracy effort.

Already, maritime operations are expensive. At a time when defense budgets in the United States and Europe are strained by financial crisis, inefficiencies due to pure institutional rivalry are not justifiable. Even when the missions do share intelligence, for example, some NATO equipment cannot be used aboard EU vessels. Every doubling adds dollars to the task.

It is a shame that some of these same lessons were not learned from the last time NATO and the Western European Union (a predecessor of European defense) navies competed — off the coast of Yugoslavia in 1992. The problem in the Adriatic was not that the operational area was too small for two separate naval forces doing the same job. Rather, both NATO and WEU were primarily interested in upholding their claim to primacy in military affairs. Then British Secretary of State for Defense Malcolm Rifkind summed up the trouble: “Even if in practice the operation is running well, it is difficult to have coherent arguments that both should be involved in the operation.” The same is certainly true today.

The EU and NATO both must decide what their true goal is in the Gulf of Aden: to end piracy, or to win top honors for military strength. If they choose the prior, they should consolidate their separate efforts into a single operation as they did in 1993. Otherwise, pirates might just keep the upper hand.

Bjoern Seibert is research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and research affiliate at the Security Studies Program at MIT.

PAUL MADEJ/AFP/Getty Images

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