If Europe occasionally winces at accusations that it is not pulling its weight in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, it has been prouder of its take-charge role in combating Somalia’s relentless pirates. However, much like the Afghan war, that effort appears to be floundering in the face of a relentless, quickly adapting and resurgent enemy despite successes like Sunday’s dramatic rescue of Richard Phillips, the American ship captain held hostage since Wednesday by defiant Somali pirates.
Led by France and the U.K., European nations have made the fight against piracy off the east African coast a major priority, and have supplied considerable naval assets to it. France, Britain and other European nations have co-authored United Nations resolutions authorizing force to combat Somali pirates. France, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands have all contributed ships alongside the U.S. to the Combined Task Force 150, whose mission includes preventing piracy off the Horn of Africa. And in operations similar to Sunday’s rescue of the Maersk Alabama captain by U.S. Navy SEALs, France’s navy commandos have stormed at least three captive crafts to free French nationals being held hostage including the April 10 raid of a sailboat whose crew of five had been taken several days before. On Saturday, meanwhile, a Spanish frigate intercepted six presumed pirates in their arms-laden boat as it headed toward a Panamanian merchant vessel.
But for all that action and resolve, Europe’s efforts have proven no more effective in eradicating the region’s piracy than have those of the U.S. or other African nations.
Sunday’s rescue of Phillips, after all, was simply an effort to play catch-up: snatching back human bounty pirates had already made off with. And just a day before, pirates had captured another vessel, an Italian tugboat, in the Gulf of Aden bringing the total of high-seas abductions to 65 so far this year, compared with 164 for all of 2008 and 2009. By Sunday, its captors had reportedly gotten the Italian craft to port in Somalia, and had taken its crew of 16 to shore a return to land that leaves pirates virtually invulnerable to any outside offensives to free hostages or seize vessels.
That was the just situation the U.S. wanted to avoid in rescuing Phillips on Sunday, and in the French operation in which Navy commandos stormed the sailboat Tanit on Friday, in which two pirates and the skipper of the craft were killed in a shoot-out. Despite the risk to the crew, French President Nicolas Sarkozy personally approved the raid once all efforts to negotiate their release including ransom payment had been refused by the pirates, who instead insisted they be allowed to sail to shore.
The spike in vessels attacked over the past week, and since beginning of the year, has come even though NATO has redoubled patrols off the Horn of Africa. Though Europe’s Operation Atalanta was dispatched last autumn to relieve NATO’s flotilla in the region, the alliance has since decided to roll out a new naval policing force known as Allied Protector largely serving the same function, yet independent of the European scheme. Indeed, some experts say, these military efforts are fruitless without a well-coordinated antipirate strategy.
“The two separate missions won’t cooperate as they should. They will needlessly duplicate already expensive effort, and the resulting disarray might even give pirates the upper hand,” Bjoern Seibert, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, writes in Foreign Policy magazine. “The E.U. 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.”
Perhaps, but some officials say failure to quash Somali pirates is far from just an organizational problem. “You’re talking about people who have everything to gain from piracy because they already decided they had nothing to lose taking it up,” says one French diplomat who asks not to be named, referring to the dire poverty many Somalis face. “Meanwhile, they’re fearless, apparently growing in number, and they learn more from each of our interceptions or raids. We’re determined to beat them, but they can be formidable.”
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