Absurdistan Looms Off the Horn of Africa | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 25.11.2008
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Absurdistan Looms Off the Horn of Africa

Germany is reportedly set to send 1,400 additional troops to help the EU fight piracy off the coast of Somalia. Yet German troops already patrolling the area attest to the difficulty of the mission.

Two soldiers on board a ship off of Africa with a helicopter

Germany has set tight limits on military involvement

A sign on the door of the small post office warns that Christmas will need to come early for the 250 crew members of the German frigate Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. "Please deposit Christmas mail by December 12th," the sign reminds those on board.

This holiday season, relatives in Germany will be nervously awaiting news from their loved ones on board the MeckPomm, as it's known. The ship set sail from Djibouti on Nov. 22. For the next five months, it will patrol the water off of the Horn of Africa. It's this area that has become the focal point of international attention in recent weeks as Somali pirates have begun carrying out increasingly bold kidnappings in which they've demanded millions of dollars in ransom from the shipping companies.

Just in case the MeckPomm gets involved in a firefight, the German military has already gathered contact information from families of the sailors. This will allow the military to contact them directly of any incidents instead of “only being informed by the press," said Rebecca Broksch, the dentist on board.

In hot water

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the German navy has been patrolling off the Horn of Africa as part of the US-led anti-terror mission Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). As part of the mission, German soldiers and sailors try to keep tabs by sea and air on an area eight times the size of Germany. The main goal was to prevent drugs and weapons from being smuggled through the area.

A young woman holds her baby child on her arm as she waves the leaving frigate 'Mecklenburg-Vorpommern'

The German navy operates in dangerous waters

The territory covered by Germany's current mandate shows up as a big red spot on the ocean map aboard the MeckPomm. The German mission has very strict rules of engagement. A specially-trained “boarding team” makes contact with a suspicious ship only with the captain's permission. Germany's OEF mandate leaves it up to Americans to make any arrests, if that becomes necessary.

The mission is further limited by international rules governing the seas. The MeckPomm is not allowed to patrol within 12 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen, even though this is known as a transit point for organized drug and arms smuggling.

Recently, the German mission has been criticized as expensive and to a large extent a pointless gesture designed please the Americans. Nevertheless, the German mandate was extended on Nov. 13, although the number of soldiers allowed to go on the mission was lowered to 800.

No ordinary mission

And now the pirate issue has come up as well.

A visit to the ship's hospital confirms that the MeckPomm is not on an ordinary peacekeeping mission. Both a surgeon and an anesthesiologist are on board. The alert level for the entire crew has also been increased.

"There is a large strain" on the crew, said Thomas Stoetzel. The 29-year-old chief petty officer last took part in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. He watches as the so-called "chat mails" come across the screen from the military headquarters in Bahrain.

"It would be nice to have a clear policy decision,” Stoetzel said. “We need a fast solution because we are alone here. I must be able to tell my subordinates what we are allowed to do and what we aren't.”

Waiting for instructions

Stoetzel and his comrades will have to be patient.

Collage of map, pictures, NATO symbol

Piracy has become a top international concern

Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, has been asked to clarify what powers their soldiers would have in the region. But no decisions are likely until just before Christmas. Complicating the decision-making process is that four ministries (the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Department and the Defense Department) are involved.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently pushed for a robust German mandate on a trip to Indian. Yet German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung has pointed out that there are limits to the military's capacity. Besides the MeckPomm, Germany's frigate Karlsruhe is on an anti-piracy mission for NATO in the Red Sea. The Karlsruhe is also not allowed to arrest pirates.

And, starting in December, Germany will likely be taking part in the European Union's anti-piracy Atalanta. The so-called EUNAVOR operation will be made up of seven ships, three of them frigates and one a supply vessel. It will also be supported by surveillance aircraft.

While no official announcement has been made, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported on Tuesday, Nov. 25 that Germany would send an additional 1,400 troops to the area as part of the EU mission.

A political call

Those who oppose Germany's involvement view the patrol mission as “Absurdistan off the coast of Africa.”

“Whether more is possible is a political question. (Answering it) would be outside of my mandate,” said Kay-Achim Schoenbach, commander of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Does he feel like a ball being tossed back and forth in Berlin politics?

“No, not really. Actually, better to get rid of the ‘not really' part,” Schoenbach said.

Looming chaos

Armed Puntland police guard captured Somali pirates in Bassaso, Somalia

Piracy is expected to continue for the near future

Observers are worried that utter chaos is heading towards the Gulf of Aden. Warships from OEF, NATO and the EU will be in the region. As will Russian, Indian and Spanish military vessels, which have begun to escort their countries' cargo ships. It also seems likely that some crews have begun carrying weapons.

“The piracy in Somalia must be delegated to the highest authority, the UN Security Council,” UN Special Representative for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, told Deutsche Welle in Djibouti. Bombing the Somali pirate stronghold Eyl, which has been discussed, would require a resolution from the Security Council.

Meanwhile, the Somalis complain that the international community is looking out only for their own economic interests while being only halfheartedly interested in a political solution for Somalia.

It's possible that even as Berlin continues its discussions, the piracy problems will naturally resolve themselves. The stormy season will begin soon, which will allow the pirates less maneuvering room than they have in good weather. But that will mean that in the upcoming weeks, the pirates will expand their activities so as to amass as much ransom as possible. That is not good news for the Christmas season.

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