Bush Administration Had Issued Plan for Pirates In December
In the waning days of the Bush administration, the National Security Council issued a detailed yet little-noticed plan for combating piracy off the coast of Somalia. The 14-page blueprint, issued in December, committed the U.S. government and its military to securing the sea lanes of the Gulf of Aden -- through which, the plan noted, nearly 12% of the world's oil is transported -- and laid out more than a dozen specific policy initiatives that the White House would take to make sure Somali pirates did not choke off the world's commercial shipping. But the vast majority of the tasks laid out in the plan either were aimed at making sure pirates never reached commercial vessels -- encouraging ships to travel at night, increasing intelligence sharing, destroying vessels that appear outfitted for piracy -- or ensuring that there were consequences for pirates that were ultimately caught. It was nearly silent, however, on what to do if a ship is taken by pirates and crew members are held captive. And what little guidance it provided was vague. U.S. naval forces were given authority to "terminate the act of piracy and any included hostage situation." Just how they were to do that was left unsaid. The reason for the plan's lack of guidance has now been made clear over the last two days off the coast of the Horn of Africa: The choices facing a hulking navy destroyer as it confronts a ragtag group of Somali pirates holding an American seaman hostage in a small, propulsion-free boat are extremely limited. Pentagon and U.S. Navy officials have been reticent to engage in the kind of hostage rescues that could spring crewmembers from capture at sea, arguing it would set a precedent that would strain an already thinly deployed naval taskforce in the region and, more importantly, potentially lead to more bloodshed."If we try to do some kind of hostage takedown, that's a whole other ballgame than preventing an act of piracy in progress," Rear Adm. Ted Branch, the Navy headquarters staff officer responsible for monitoring such crises at sea, told a congressional hearing on Somali piracy in February. "You certainly increase the risk to the crew members in that kind of takedown. Therefore, there hasn't been any appetite to do those kinds of [operations]." But as a result, Navy commanders have been left to rely only on intimidation and coercion to convince pirates to give up, a potentially embarrassing situation for the Obama administration, when pirates capture the world's eyes and keep its most powerful navy at bay equipped with little more than small arms and adequate food rations. Peter Chalk, an expert on piracy at the Rand Corp., said it is a predicament of the U.S.'s own making, since the only way to stamp out the pirates would be on land, where they have been able to take advantage of Somalia's failed state to set up camps and establish havens in port towns like Caluula, Eyl, Hobyo and Haradheere. The U.S. and its allies have been unwilling to tackle the problem on land, Mr. Chalk said. "I actually think this naval response is not the right thing to be doing at all," said Mr. Chalk of the presence of the USS Bainbridge, a guided missile destroyer which reached the Maersk Alabama early Thursday morning. "We have ratcheted up the situation." The ratcheting appears likely to continue. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and central Asia, told an audience in West Palm Beach, Fla., that more naval vessels are en route to the site. "Governments like the U.S. have little choice, given the public pressure and the political pressure," Mr. Chalk said. "I don't think that the naval presence out there has anything to do with the protection of ships. It's been politicized."