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The World from Berlin: 'The Pirate Problem Cannot Be Solved Militarily'

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government approved an expansion of the EU's anti-pirate mission off the coast of Somalia on Wednesday to allow military strikes on land. German commentators share the opposition's skepticism and worries about risk.

The German government wants to allow the military to attack Somali pirates on land. Zoom
DPA

The German government wants to allow the military to attack Somali pirates on land.

If one is to believe German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, it is merely a "small, useful additional option." Allowing the European Union-led anti-pirate mission Atalanta to extend operations inland from the coast of Somalia, he said, in no way represents a fundamental change to the operation.

The change he refers to was approved unanimously by Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet on Wednesday. It allows for Atalanta forces, of which the German military is a key member, to extend their fight against Somali pirates onto land. While the new mandate explicitly forbids ground forces, it would allow for air raids on pirate bases up to two kilometers inland.

There are good reasons for de Maizière to play down the change. The opposition in Berlin, led by the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), has vowed to reject the mission's expansion when parliament has its say in May. And while Merkel's coalition, made up of her conservatives and the business-friendly Free Democrats, still has plenty of seats to push through the new mandate, Germany has long sought a broad political consensus when sending its troops into conflict zones.

This time, however, finding a consensus may prove impossible. Gernot Erler, a senior SPD parliamentarian, underlined his party's position on Wednesday, saying that allowing air strikes on land-based pirate installations was a "non-solution" that significantly increases the dangers to both Atalanta soldiers and Somali civilians. Jürgen Trittin, parliamentary floor leader for the Green Party, added that the expanded mission was "dangerous and unnecessary." He added that carrying the fight onto land was anything but a small additional option.

High Risk of Collateral Damage

The cabinet vote in Berlin follows the March agreement among EU foreign ministers to expand Atalanta. The idea is to allow European troops to attack the pirates' infrastructure even as they seek to prevent pirates from high-jacking ships in the seas off the Horn of Africa. As one of the few contributing countries that have helicopters aboard its ships, Germany would likely play a critical role in any inland air raids.

Opposition politicians are concerned that, should a helicopter be shot down over land, ground troops would be forced to go in despite the new mandate's assurance that land forces remain taboo. Furthermore, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), recently argued that, because pirate bases are difficult to distinguish from civilian facilities, the risk of collateral damage would be high.

Still, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Wednesday joined de Maizière in calling on the opposition to support the broadened mandate. "When all of Europe is fighting the pirates, Germany, as the largest trade nation, cannot stand by," Westerwelle said in Berlin. "We cannot dodge this issue."

His plea, it would seem, fell on deaf ears. "One can't shake the feeling that the government, particularly the foreign minister, wants to show itself as a particularly loyal ally this time around," Erler said. Atalanta, he added, seems to be a kind of compensation for Berlin's refusal to support the NATO mission in Libya last year.

German commentators also debate the issue on Thursday.

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The Atalanta expansion may sound harmless … but it's not. The Somali pirates have no bases that could be struck by pinpoint attacks without prior ground-based reconnaissance. They often hide in fishing villages populated by civilians, who could easily become victims of an air strike. In addition, it cannot be excluded that the pirates would protect themselves by taking hostages for use as human shields. Moreover, it can be expected that the pirates will simply hide their weapons beyond the two-kilometer mark, where the helicopters are no longer allowed to go. Things may become more difficult for them, but that is all."

"For the soldiers, on the other hand, there are significant risks should the pirates be able to shoot down a helicopter with their ground-to-air missiles. In such a case, the German military would be forced to send in ground troops on a rescue mission -- and would quickly become involved in a land-based conflict. One should avoid exposing oneself to such a risk if at all possible."

"Instead, the German government should stay the current course, which involves further improving both the equipment and training available to both the soldiers at sea and to the threatened freighters. The necessary goal -- that of transforming Somalia into a functioning state -- cannot be achieved militarily."

The left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:

"So far, no one has been able to stop the pirates. As such, it is time to consider adopting new ways and means in the fight against the Somali pirates. But are air strikes on pirate bases in a corridor of just two kilometers along the Somali coast really a promising method? Even the commander of the Atalanta mission himself believes that such air strikes would have, at most, a psychological effect. Furthermore, they could result in civilian deaths and German troops could also lose their lives as a result. No, the pirate problem cannot be solved militarily."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"It is a step in the right direction, but the road is a long one. The cabinet's decision to expand the Atalanta mandate allows the German military to conduct air attacks on pirate bases on land -- but only two kilometers into Somali territory. That, of course, is not enough."

"One also has to analyze and dry up the flow of money as well as identify and pursue those behind it. There are too many people who are earning good money from this lucrative business -- and the pirates themselves, who actually carry out the high-jackings, are merely the last link in the chain. The largest profiteurs are thought to be in the Persian Gulf. It would be worthwhile to follow the money. And it would be worth it to work more closely with the African Union and the United Nations to help the failed state of Somalia and to help it build up governmental structures. It is Europe's right to combat piracy. But it is too focused on fighting the symptoms while losing sight of the causes."

-- Charles Hawley

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Map of Somalia and the surrounding region Zoom
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Map of Somalia and the surrounding region


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Graphic: Protecting shipping from pirates


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