Heroes in a Land of Pirates

Last Monday, Somali pirates seized two more prizes in rapid succession: a British-flagged chemical tanker and a Greek bulk carrier, bringing the current number of captive ships to 12 and the number of hostage mariners to at least 278. Despite the presence in the region of three multinational naval task forces comprising about 30 warships, there were 68 successful pirate hijackings in 2009, compared with 49 one year earlier.

If the New Year’s Day capture of an Indonesian tanker is any indication, 2010 will not herald an end to the attacks. As one Somali pirate told me last year: “Sometimes, we capture ships when [warships] are right around us. We don’t care about them. They’re not going to stop us.” Indeed, the pirates’ range has expanded to more than 1,000 miles off the Somali coast — as far as the Seychelles — and the futility of an exclusively naval strategy is increasingly apparent.

The situation is not without hope. There might be another way to make greater strides against pirates. However, it would involve allying ourselves with a place that doesn’t exist: the autonomous region of Puntland, Somalia.

To the ancient Egyptians, the land of Punt was a source of munificent treasures and bountiful wealth. Modern Puntland, a self-governing region in northeastern Somalia, may or may not be the successor to the Punt of legend. As I discovered when I first visited, last year, it contained none of the gold and ebony that dazzled the Egyptians, save perhaps for the color of the sand and the skin of the nomadic goat and camel herders who have inhabited it for centuries.

I arrived in Puntland in the frayed seat of a 1970s Soviet propeller plane. The 737s of Dubai, with their meal service and functioning seatbelts, were a distant memory; the plane I was on was not even allowed to land in Dubai, and the same probably went for the unkempt, ill-tempered Ukrainian pilot.

The state of the sole road running through Puntland’s north-south axis is symbolic of the neglect the region experienced under its former dictator, Siad Barre — who was overthrown in 1991 at the onset of the Somali civil war — and from the international community since. The three-decade-old Chinese concrete was crumbling and corroded, with craterous potholes turning my 150-mile journey from the airport into a four- or five-hour jolting ordeal. It was the dry season, and parched shrubs dotted the barren landscape; the dust clung to my skin until my shirt felt like fine sandpaper.

I spent the next six weeks living in the regional capital, Garowe, amid the boom and bustle created by the recent influx of pirates’ wealth from nearby coastal bases of operation. Conducting research with a local journalist — who is the son of Puntland’s president, Abdirahman Farole — I gained an inside view into the workings of this fledgling and largely autonomous state within Somalia.

Contrary to the oft-recycled one-liners found in most news reports, Somalia is not a country ruled by anarchy. Indeed, it is a mischaracterization to even speak of Somalia as a uniform entity. It is an amalgamation of quasi-independent regions like Puntland, which was founded in 1998 as a tribal sanctuary for the hundreds of thousands of Darod-clan people fleeing massacres in the south. Puntland comprises one-quarter to one-third of Somalia’s total land mass (depending on whom you talk to) and almost half of its coastline.

Straddling the shipping bottleneck of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, it was the natural candidate to become the epicenter of the recent outbreak of Somali piracy. But inhabitants of Puntland enjoy a relatively violence-free existence, little troubled by the turmoil to the south. The region has experienced only one low-intensity civil conflict since its founding, a brief dispute in 2001 and 2002 between the presidential incumbent, Abdullahi Yusuf, and his challenger, Jama Ali Jama.

In any serious attempt to combat piracy, Puntland must play an integral role. Yet it is not recognized as a legitimate actor in the region and has been financially abandoned by the international community, which continues to ignore the reality on the ground in favor of the flimsy transitional federal government, a 550-member parliamentary hodgepodge ruling over a few checkpoints in Mogadishu, hundreds of miles from any real pirate activity. A collection of ex-warlords and self-styled moderate Islamists, this is a government that does not govern; its M.P.’s have no constituents, its ministers no portfolios, and it exercises nothing close to control of the violence within its supposed borders.

The perpetuation of this farce is inexplicable. At an April 2009 donor conference in Brussels, the international community pledged $250 million to finance, among other things, the training of a police force and the upkeep of the African Union mission in Mogadishu. This, despite the fact that politicians of the transitional government have a talent for making money vanish into thin air. A far better use of aid would be to augment Puntland’s paltry $18 million budget, which is almost exclusively derived from port taxes.

Two weeks into my visit, I accompanied President Farole to Bossaso, Puntland’s sweltering northern metropolis (and largest city), on his first domestic tour since his election. Addressing an assembly of Somali businessmen one evening, he appealed for donations to pay for a list of absurdly modest projects: building a four-mile road from the livestock-inspection station to the port; replacing road signs on the lone highway, long ago stripped bare for the valuable metal; constructing a small hospital. As the members of the transitional government huddle in their Mogadishu barracks, waiting to collect their welfare checks, Mr. Farole is reduced to roaming the countryside, begging for alms.

Despite Puntland’s limited capacity, Mr. Farole is committed to taking the fight to the pirates. Indeed, the government of Puntland has been advocating a strict policy of nonnegotiation with pirates since the beginning of the crisis. On those occasions that Puntland’s tiny (and now defunct) coast guard has been given the authority by shipowners to liberate hijacked vessels, the pirates have tended to melt away, content to keep their lives rather than their prize.

Successful land operations in Puntland’s coastal towns have accompanied these marine assaults. One afternoon, while in Bossaso, the president personally led a sudden raid on a gang of pirates preparing to shove off into the Gulf of Aden. These would-be hijackers joined the more than 100 convicted pirates, many with life sentences, being held in Puntland’s lone prison.

It is unclear if an all-out assault would have worked with the pirates on board a multimillion-dollar lottery ticket like the Saudi oil supertanker Sirius Star, which was released last year after a huge ransom was paid. But the effect of international shipping companies consistently giving in to pirates’ demands is clear: ransoms keep creeping steadily upward, highlighted by a reported $4 million paid to release the Chinese bulk carrier MV De Xin Hai on Dec. 28 — the highest publicly announced amount to date. Unless a concerted effort is made to prevent shipping companies from paying these ransoms, the hands of both international navies and the local authorities will be tied — and the pirates know it.

Meanwhile, the Puntland security forces, at sea and on land, are woefully undermanned, underfinanced and underequipped. The terrain encompassing the eastern coastal towns, including the infamous pirate haven of Eyl, is rugged and roadless. Any land operation has to originate in Bossaso or Garowe, home to the only military bases in the region, and it would involve transporting troops up to hundreds of miles by four-wheel drive. The logistical difficulties in deploying such a response make successful results extremely rare, and almost entirely dependent on timely local intelligence gathering. Without ample international assistance, Puntland’s law-enforcement capacity is unlikely to improve.

Buttressing Puntland will not bring an end to the piracy problem. Because of a combination of increasing government security sweeps, hostility from the local people and the growing preference of the pirates to work in the relatively vacant Indian Ocean (and not the heavily patrolled Gulf of Aden), the locus of attacks has begun to shift from Eyl to ports farther south, particularly Harardhere.

But Puntland remains crucial, and success there might prove a model for similar action in in Harardhere, which is governed by another regional administration distinct from the turbulent south, albeit an extremely weak one.

The way to begin is by siphoning to Puntland some of the money flowing into the bottomless coffers of the transitional government. If the international community is serious about ending Somali piracy, it must engage Puntland as a full-time partner.

Acknowledging its existence would be a sound first step.

Jay Bahadur, who is currently working on a book about Somali piracy.