02/16/2009 10:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Piracy and Us

Every day seems to bring another headline-grabbing act of piracy in the lawless waters off the Horn of Africa. Earlier this year, while writing a Masters thesis relating maritime insecurity in Africa to U.S. national security objectives, I reported that, according to the International Maritime Bureau, acts of piracy in the seas around Somalia had tripled, from 10 in 2006 to 31 in 2007. So far in 2008, that number has doubled. If the seas represent global connectivity - the conduit of trade and commerce - then acts of crime on them may have global effects, as well. Otherwise said, piracy in the Gulf of Aden might seem like a pebble dropping, but the ripples may be felt everywhere.

It was not long ago that problems besetting Africa were far down the list of U.S. national security priorities. In 1995, the Department of Defense put the matter bluntly: "Ultimately, we see very little traditional strategic interest in Africa." Then came the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror, the spike in oil prices, and a recognition of the potential for global destabilization posed by interlocking threats such as poverty, AIDS and global warming. So the U.S. reassessed that strategy and in 2006, President Bush stated, "Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority for this administration."

Washington affirmed its commitment with the 2007 establishment of a unified Pentagon command, AFRICOM, that replaced the parceling out of Africa to the Pacific, Central and European Commands, and which became fully operational on October 1 of this year. On the continent, it had been widely criticized as militarization of aid, colonialization with a modern face, or a cynical attempt to secure energy and other resources against growing Chinese dominance. Furthermore, there remained distrust after historic policy failures in Somalia and Rwanda. No one wanted U.S. military bases or insta-intervention in Africa, and only Liberia stepped up to host the Command, which remains based in Stuttgart, Germany. The election of Barack Obama may change that perception.

AFRICOM's mission is to work with other U.S. agencies, allies and African partners - in the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "to prevent war, not to wage it." As such, with the Pentagon suffering a branding crisis in the wake of two unloved wars, and with the changing nature of conflict, it may be the right time for a new strategic paradigm like AFRICOM. Piracy in the Horn is just one of the non-traditional threats to which the Command, with its coalition partners, will likely respond (for the time being CENTCOM still leads the effort.)

With expensive wars on top of a worldwide financial crisis, it may be difficult to prioritize policy towards Africa, particularly as it consists of 53 independent countries, each with their own distinct relationship with the U.S. Recently, Congress cut AFRICOM's budget by one-third. But the continent must remain a focal point of the new administration's policies and the President-elect is and will be a potent symbolic figurehead to lead it. Without overstating the potential for complete Malthusian doom, several violent current conflicts in Africa could have widespread spillover effects. Humanitarian crises emanating from large populations displaced from civil wars and natural disasters, combined with corruption and exploitation of natural resources, may increase the adverse affects on human security and hence, national security. Much has been made of the link between disaffected populations and militancy, including Islamic fundamentalism, in countries like Somalia that is 99 per cent Muslim. Whether or not this actually holds true, people fatigued by poverty, hunger and hopelessness are not ideal candidates to help to breed stable democracies. Unilateral military response is not the answer, but rather recognizing the relationship between security and development to deal with potential threats and their root causes.

Not the least of these threats is piracy in the Horn of Africa. If piracy is a consequence of the failed Somali state and economic hardship from war and drought, it also exacerbates the problems - this in a country where the UN estimates 3.5 people in need of humanitarian assistance by the end of this year. Ships containing food and other critical aid require coalition naval or NATO escorts (Somalia has no navy to patrol its waters), and once on the ground, supplies are frequently hijacked. Lawlessness and vast ungoverned spaces allows the transit of other illegal vessels, which wipes out local fishing and creates conditions where other crime or terrorism may flourish. And crucially, the narrow Bab-el-Mandab Strait - a vital sea line of communication - passes by the Horn of Africa, connecting the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea. Roughly 40 per cent of all transoceanic oil tankers, containing 3.3 million barrels a day, pass through it each year. Acts of piracy underscore the vulnerability of these chokepoints and of the world's oil supplies, 60 per cent of which are transported by slow-moving tankers. Furthermore, with 95 percent of all global trade travelling by sea, diverting ships around the southern tip of Africa adds time and an estimated $500,000.00 per ship, increasing consumer cost, - yet another toll of piracy's threat to global commerce and freedom of the seas.

On Africa's west coast, the situation is also dire, with 24 reported incidents of piracy in Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea in just the third quarter of this year. As the fifth largest - and growing - exporter of petroleum to the U.S., with the ninth largest proven reserves of liquefied natural gas, Nigeria's strategic importance is intertwined with our dependence on fossil fuels. Acts of piracy by Nigerian rebels against international energy concerns in the vast Niger Delta aim to destabilize the world's oil and gas economy and have successfully and repeatedly done so.

Darfur has temporarily dropped off the mainstream news radar, but the escalating number of pirate attacks in the Horn of Africa is bringing Africa back into sharp focus. With a President of partial Kenyan descent, it remains to be seen how U.S. policy towards Africa will evolve or progress. To the poor countries in the world, Barack Obama's activities as a community organizer show an appreciation of what it is to be powerless. Knowledge, rooted in his heritage, leads him to an understanding of the needs of developing countries, and the citizens of those countries are counting on that empathy. African citizens have celebrated his election as an implicit rejection of the too-common corruption of that continent's leaders. So the expectations must be high and with that, AFRICOM may be afforded some leeway at first.

If AFRICOM adheres to its mission - works with allies and partners, retains its focus on the prevention of conflict, and keeps an eye towards helping African countries improve the human and economic environment where threats like piracy can take root and grow - it may prove to be a strategic concept whose time has come.