“Pirates of the Caribbean” and cute little Johnny Depp they are not. Somalia’s pirates tote AK-47’s and RPG rockets, chew the narcotic shrub qat, use satellite cell phones for their negotiations, and are just about the only people in strife-ravaged Somalia these days who have a regular job.
The Strait of Malacca between Singapore and Indonesia used to be the world’s leading haunt of pirates, the 20th Century’s version of the fabled Spanish Main. No more. Now it’s the waters off the Horn of Africa and the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.
This year alone, brazen Somali pirates have attacked 95 vessels.
The corsairs still hold 16 ships and up to 300 sailors. Among them, a Ukrainian freighter loaded with T-72 tanks whose ultimate destination remains a mystery, and now a Saudi supertanker laden with 2 million barrels of oil valued at US $110 million. The pirates demand $25 million ransom for the vessel and Filipino crew.
Somalia’s pirates have shown an amazing ability to board underway vessels in the dark, which is like trying to climb a wet, oily six story building moving at 25 km per hour with ropes and ladders. The poorly paid, mainly Asian crews of the attacked vessels quickly surrender.
Western powers have increased naval patrols off the Horn of Africa. Russia is also sending warships to the region. The US is sending more warships. Not since the two Barbary Wars of 1801—1805, and 1815, in which the fledgling US Navy and Marine Corps covered themselves with glory fighting North African pirate states, has America been so involved in counter-piracy action.
The current piracy epidemic underlines the urgent need to bring stability to war-torn Somalia, where millions face famine and epidemics. Somalia has been in anarchy since 1991 when its former dictator, Gen. Siad Barre, was overthrown. Since then, the nation has splintered into semi-independent regions fought over by warring clans, sub clans and militias.
In 2006, a stable, popular government was finally established in southern Somalia, a moderate Islamist movement known as the Islamic Courts Union. It was quickly marked for death by the Islamophobic Bush administration which claimed, quite falsely, that the Courts Union was in league with al-Qaeda
Under cover of the Christmas holiday in December, 2006, the US and its regional ally Ethiopia invaded Somalia and overthrew its government. A new puppet government, supported by Ethiopian troops, claimed to run the country. National resistance against the US-Ethiopian invasion began immediately and continues to this day. Meanwhile, millions of Somalis were left to starve.
According to the UN, disease and famine in Somalia are now worse than in Darfur. Yet the world has turned its back on suffering Somalia. Unlike Darfur, which became a “cause célèbre” for America’s Christian far right, no one cares about Somalia — or at least no one did until Somalia pirates began preying on international commerce.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Somalia pirate drama involves India. In a dramatic move, an Indian frigate, INS “Tabar,” stole the limelight by sinking a Somali pirate mother ship off the coast of Oman. “Tabar” had previously driven off other Somali buccaneers.
I first saw “Tabar,” a Soviet/Russian Krivak-III missile frigate, under construction at St. Petersberg’s Baltisiskya Zavod yards. This beautiful, elegant warship carries the new Russian/Indian “BrahMos,” the world’s deadliest supersonic anti-ship missile, and the Israeli “Barak” missile system. “BrahMos” was designed to sink aircraft carriers. The only navy that operates carriers in the Indian Ocean besides India is the United States.
“Tabar” was on station in the Gulf of Aden escorting Indian merchantmen and ships of other nation. Her presence is the latest sign of India’s growing maritime power, a subject about which I have been writing for two decades. India is now making her maritime strength felt right to the mouth of the Red Sea, in the oil-exporting Gulf, along Africa’s east coast, and all the way south to Fiji and Australian waters. In the event of war with Pakistan, India’s navy could blockade its coast and cut off all imports of oil, quickly bringing Pakistan to its knees.
Many Indian strategists regard the vast Indian Ocean as their nation’s “mare nostrum,” or exclusive sphere of influence. India’s steady naval expansion is designed to protect its commerce and long coasts, and exert Delhi’s growing influence around the oil-rich Gulf and South Asia. India’s navy is also keeping a weather eye on the evolution of China’s fleet from a coastal defense force into a true blue water navy. Just last week, a senior Chinese official caused a stir in Washington by hinting his nation was planning to build its first aircraft carrier (the US has eleven).
India’s fleet includes an aircraft carrier; a refitting ex-Soviet carrier on order, the “Admiral Gorshakov”; at least 16 modern submarines, plus a series of nuclear-powered ones being built; 48 surface warships; a powerful naval air arm, and advanced reconnaissance satellites. The “Akula” attack sub in which a score of Russian sailors and technicians recently died after fire-extinguishing Freon gas was accidentally released, is believed to be destined for the Indian Navy.
India’s growing naval might will soon challenge the Indian Ocean’s premier naval power, the United States, which regards the Gulf oil routes and Arabian Sea as its own pond. India’s acquisition of Russian “Akula” class nuclear-powered subs that do 40 knots submerged; the deadly BrahMos missiles; and the Russian heavy, TU-160 long-ranged bomber have the US Navy warily watching.
In another important event barely noticed in the West, on 14 November, an Indian space probe hit the moon. If India can deliver a probe to the moon, the same launchers and guidance systems can deliver nuclear warheads to North America, Europe or Australia. India is testing a new 5,500-km medium-ranged ballistic missile, “Surya,” which is expected to be upgraded into a true intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) carrying nuclear warheads with double the range. India is also deploying a submarine-launched, nuclear-armed ballistic missile.
India’s rapid development of strategic weapons systems and nuclear warheads has been greatly accelerated and aided by the new US-Indian nuclear accords, US high-speed computer technology, and nuclear weapons technology from Israel, India’s second largest arms supplier.
India is also emplacing new Agni-II intermediate missiles along the tense Tibet border, in response, says, Delhi to more than 100 Chinese nuclear-armed missiles on the Tibetan plateau targeted at India
The lesson to be drawn from all this is that India must be a force to be reckoned with in the Indian Ocean and Gulf as it advances its own oil, trade and political interests which may one day come to compete with those of the other two regional superpowers, the United States and China.
Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada. He is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.