Somalia Mission Expands
EU To Target Pirates Up to Two Kilometers Inland
> Matthias Gebauer
Last week, the European Union agreed to expand its anti-piracy mission to
include land-based targets in Somalia. SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned that air
attacks up to two kilometers inland will be allowed. But an expansion of the
mandate could face obstacles in Berlin, where opposition politicians warn
that EU forces could get dragged into fighting on the ground.
Until now, the European Union's Operation Atalanta, which targets pirates
off the coast of Somalia, has been restricted to purely maritime operations.
But that could soon change, now that the EU has agreed on a controversial
expansion of the mission.
Last Friday, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to expand the
operation to include the coastal region. According to information obtained
by SPIEGEL ONLINE, the ministers agreed that Atalanta units should be able
to target pirates and their infrastructure up to a limit of two kilometers
(1.2 miles) inland. If the expansion is approved, it will be the first time
that Western forces are allowed to target pirates on the Somali mainland.
expanded Atalanta mandate is aimed mainly at the pirates' infrastructure,
and the use of ground troops has been specifically ruled out. The operations
will be limited to air strikes against targets such as storage tanks, boats
and radio facilities. Initially, the EU wanted to keep secret the limit for
how far forces could penetrate into the country, amid concerns that the
pirates could simply shift their facilities further inland.
The limit itself was the subject of prolonged debate in Brussels. Military
representatives had originally proposed a limit of four kilometers, but this
met with considerable resistance from Germany and Spain. In the end, German
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle succeeded in arguing for strict limits on
the land-based operations.
Avoiding Civilian Casualties
An expansion of the mission could have significant consequences for the
German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, which is currently taking part in the
Atalanta mission with 291 soldiers and the combat support warship Berlin,
stationed off East Africa. Germany is one of the few contributing countries
that has helicopters on board its ships which could be used to attack
targets along the coast of Somalia from the air. Military experts argue that
such attacks should ideally be carried out with cannons mounted on
helicopters, to hit the targets as accurately as possible and avoid civilian
casualties. The helicopter cannons are considered particularly accurate, and
the gun operators also have the advantage of having the target directly in
front of them.
But if the German navy is to play a role in the expanded mission, then
Berlin will need to get a new mandate for the operation approved by the
German parliament, the Bundestag. The original plan was to get the mandate
approved by Chancellor Merkel's cabinet this week in a fast-track process.
Now, however, sources in Berlin say that the cabinet will not vote on the
mandate until mid-April. After that, the Bundestag will debate the
There are already signs that Germany's two main opposition parties, the
center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens, will not support
expanding the mandate to allow air strikes on the mainland. That could make
things tricky for Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration. Although the
government doesn't technically need opposition support to get the mandate
through parliament, the German government traditionally aims to achieve
cross-party support for the Bundeswehr's foreign missions, the idea being
that such missions should enjoy broad support among the German population.
But even before that debate gets started properly, German politicians are
already expressing doubts about the EU's new approach. Even if the operation
excludes the use of ground troops, if a helicopter were to have a technical
problem, or be shot down from the ground, then soldiers might suddenly need
to go ashore. Western nations still have painful memories of a 1993 incident
in Somalia -- later the subject of the book and film "Black Hawk Down" --
when two US helicopters crashed in the Somali capital Mogadishu and an angry
mob dragged the bodies of the pilots through the streets of the city.
A Militarization of the Problem
Critics such as SPD defense expert Rainer Arnold also oppose what they
describe as a further militarization of the piracy problem. Arnold argues
that piracy should be fought by targeting the flows of the millions of
dollars the pirates earn in ransoms for kidnapped Westerners. In the run-up
to the EU foreign ministers' decision, Arnold had already announced that his
party might oppose such a mandate in the Bundestag.
It remains unclear, however, whether the whole SPD parliamentary group would
follow his lead in rejecting the expansion. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for
example, the party's floor leader in parliament, was involved in setting up
the mission while German foreign minister, a position he held from 2005 to
2009. It would be hard for him to now reject the mission out of hand.
It's not just politicians who have misgivings about expanding the operation,
either. There are also people in Germany's law enforcement agencies who
doubt whether the planned attacks against pirates' infrastructure will yield
real successes. In a recent closed-doors discussion, experts from Germany's
foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), argued that
the pirates' small bases could hardly be distinguished from fishermen's
facilities from the air. Such air attacks, they said, carried a high risk of
so-called collateral damage -- in other words, civilian casualties.
In addition, possible air strikes would probably only cause the pirates to
move their infrastructure further inland or into villages inhabited by
innocent Somalis. Such relocation would also make it harder for intelligence
agencies to track down the pirates' hostages.
The sea off the Somalia coast is regarded as the most dangerous in the
world. Last year alone there were around 230 pirate attacks. With Somalia
still without a functioning government, scores of young men continue to set
out to sea to hijack ships passing along the vital trade route. The vessels
and their crews are then held hostage for ransom, a lucrative activity.
The EU launched Operation Atalanta in December 2008 in a bid to tackle the
problem. Last week, EU foreign ministers decided to extend the operation
until December 2014.
As well as EU member states, non-EU countries such as Norway, Croatia and
Ukraine have also contributed to the operation. The force has around 1,500
military personnel at its disposal. Depending on the time of year, it
typically has between four and seven surface warships and two or three
reconnaissance aircraft deployed off the coast of Somalia and in the Indian
Ocean. Military units are currently drawn from a core group of 13
contributing countries, including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands,
Spain and the United Kingdom, among others.
In addition to Atalanta, there is a substantial international force in the
area, including the US-led, multinational group called the Combined Maritime
Forces. NATO, too, is present and ships from China, India, Japan, Russia and
other countries also patrol the waters.
Until now, the fight against Somali piracy has been mainly restricted to
targeting the boats used by pirates. In addition, Atalanta forces track the
motherships that pirates use to operate hundreds of kilometers from the
coast. The mission also provides escorts to World Food Program vessels
delivering food aid to the Somali people.
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Received on Tue Mar 27 2012 - 17:05:33 EDT