The EU's anti-piracy mission Atalanta off the Horn of Africa has recorded modest success. Now, the German parliament is set to vote on a controversial enlarged mandate that would see troops also going ashore.
Named after the virgin hunter from Greek mythology, the EU's Atalanta mission is meant to crack down on pirates off the Horn of Africa. The mandate to do so was first approved in 2008 and has two major goals: getting aid into the politically unstable and drought-stricken country and protecting international merchant shipping from pirate attacks.
Around 230 such attacks were counted last year. The head of the mission, British Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, says the project has been successful: In the second half of 2011 there have been only three successful pirate attacks. In the first half of the year it was still 28. The mission now is to be beefed up.
A land mission?
"This demand is to a large extent coming from our British partners," said the defense spokesman for Germany's opposition Social Democrats, Rainer Arnold. The commanding officer from Britain was of the opinion that stepping up the Atalanta efforts would have a psychological effect on the pirates as it would increase their efforts and costs. "I cannot follow this line of argument at all," Arnold said.
Germany's opposition Greens and the Left Party are against enlarging the scope of the mission and are expected to oppose the plan in Thursday's vote in parliament.
Defense Minster Thomas de Maiziere has called on lawmakers to back the plan and to live up to Germany's international responsibilities. Under the new mandate, international troops – including German armed forces personnel – would be able to pursue pirates not only on sea but also on shore up to two kilometers inland from the coastline.
In this zone, troops would be able to search out and destroy pirate bases, boats and fuel tanks. This would take away the pirate's logistical advantage, argues Philipp Missfelder of Chancellor Merkel's governing conservatives. "There is intelligence that you can see at the beach where the pirates have their bases, where they have their ships." He admitted that going ashore might make the mission more dangerous for the soldiers but said that "weighing the pros and cons, I have to come to the conclusion that this would be the right decision."
Eva Strickmann of King's College in London is an expert on the security situation off the Horn of Africa. She sees the two kilometer zone as a compromise between those EU countries like France, Britain and the Netherlands who want to be able to attack the pirates on land rather than just protecting commercial ships, and other countries like Spain and Germany that are more hesitant on that issue.
From a military perspective it is understandable that the current strategy does not lead to any sustainable result, as it fails to destroy the pirate's operative infrastructure. But Strickmann does see a number of problems: She believes that in future, the pirates will increase their cooperation with the population on the coast, who know the territory so well that the pirates can move their bases out of the two-kilometer zone. This will make it more difficult if not impossible for the Atalanta mission to degrade the logistics centers of the pirates.
However, she does not agree with the German opposition's concerns that the pirates might use the normal population as human shields because "they are dependent on support from the local people." It is there where they have their networks of support, their economic structures and often also their families. The pirates might however react to the expanded Atalanta mission by being more ruthless in taking hostages or staging military counter efforts. There is an increased presence of al Shabaab militias in Puntland, Strickmann said. All those factors might add up and further destabilize the region. It would also undermine the EU's own efforts to help the country build up a coastal police.
Hopes for political change
Arnold argues that it is the masterminds in the background that the EU should be going after. There was a lack of intelligence on the flows of ransom money and the money laundering that's going on. Those people however are not to be found at the beach in Somalia, Arnold points out.
Missfelder agrees that "this military operation is only tackling the symptoms." In the long run the goal would have to be to help Somalia getting back on its feet and to develop normal political and social structures. Since 2008, the EU has invested some 400 million euros into long term aid projects in the country. The money is to go into education and setting up a functioning legal system. Strickmann too is convinced that political efforts and the new constitution the country is currently working on will have a good chance to improve the situation in the country.
Author: Sabine Hartert / ai
Editor: Gregg Benzow