Friday, 22 April 2011

Appeasement Never Pays

By Ex Navy Chief (retd.)Admiral Arun Prakash

At about four in the morning of September 12, 2010, just a few hours after she had departed the Kenyan port of Mombasa for Durban in South Africa, the motor tanker Asphalt Venture was boarded by Somalian pirates. The ship’s last radio message indicated that she was heading for Harardhere on the Somali coast. This relatively small, 4,000-tonne, 10-year-old, bitumen-carrying ship has two attributes that made it a prime target for pirates: its top speed is a paltry 8 knots and it has a low freeboard, which means that a 25-knot pirate skiff could easily overtake her and by throwing a hook over the low railing, board her without a problem. Little was known or heard about the fate of the ship till she was released, seven months later, on April 17. But sadly six of her 15-member crew have been kept back.

A look at the ship’s complex provenance provides a revealing insight into the vexed problem of piracy which has overtaken the seafaring world. The vessel is owned by a company in Sharjah, flies the Panama flag and is managed by a Mumbai ship-management company which provided the Indian master and 15 crewmen. Who should come to the rescue of the ship and its crew is the moot question, which obviously took seven months to resolve. Legally, the safety and security of a ship is the responsibility of the “flag state” — distant Panama in this case. The vessel’s owner too has a degree of responsibility but, morally, every country has the duty to protect its citizens, no matter where.

Let us go back to February 2006. On receiving media information that an Indian-owned and -manned dhow, MV Bhakti Sagar, flying the Indian flag, had been hijacked by Somali pirates, Naval Headquarters (NHQ) ordered the destroyer INS Mumbai, homeward bound from Oman, to alter course for Somalian waters. The intention was for the ship to position just outside Somali territorial waters and remain on station, since intense diplomatic activity was underway to negotiate the release of the Indian crew. Nautical wisdom said that a powerful warship, looming unseen over the horizon, could open any number of options; not all of them military. And best of all, if nothing worked out, she could just come home, still unheard and unseen.

While Mumbai was proceeding with all despatch, a heated debate raged in the cabinet secretary’s office about the advisability of sending a warship. At the end of these deliberations, the MEA sent a written note to NHQ posing a set of rhetorical questions, which came as a revelation about the diffidence and lack of resolve that prevails at policy-making levels. Agonising about how our African and Middle-Eastern neighbours would react to what was termed as “muscle-flexing” by the Indian navy, the note vividly illustrated why India has earned the sobriquet of a “soft state”.

The essence of the note was contained in one plaintive query: “Will we sail a destroyer every time an Indian national is in trouble anywhere?” The navy’s emphatic response — “Yes of course; if we have one available!” — went unheeded, and the warship had to be recalled. A few days later, the shipowner paid ransom to the pirates, and 21 Indian citizens came home, without the Indian state or its powerful navy having lifted a finger to protect them.

So what has changed in the past five years? For one, the Somali pirates have gained immeasurably in audacity as well as in range and scale of their depredations. They have graduated from small skiffs and trawlers to using medium-sized captured merchantmen as “mother ships”, which allows them the freedom to extend their range up to 1,000-1,500 miles from home waters — right into India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The ransom has risen from a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars per ship and crew.

Warships, of more than 25 nations, either individually or as part of joint task-forces, are regularly deployed in the Gulf of Aden and in the Somali Basin to deter pirate attacks on merchant ships. The UN General Assembly has passed a number of resolutions authorising the pursuit of pirates into Somali waters and their prosecution. However, all these measures have failed to curb piracy, and the menace has assumed serious proportions for a number of reasons, including the inadequacy of naval forces, lack of multinational coordination, and the inadequacy of existing laws to deal comprehensively with captured pirates. The Indian navy has, however, deservedly earned international plaudits for the bold and resolute actions of its captains.

In the case of Asphalt Venture, it was the ship’s Emirati owners who, finally, negotiated a ransom of $3.5 million. There are two theories about why six Indian crew members have been kept back. One is that the pirates are annoyed because the owners have paid less ransom than agreed upon. The other, more disturbing, version is that they are demanding the release of their compatriots captured last month by the Indian navy. If Kandahar and IC-814 had a lesson, it was that appeasement never pays. Perhaps it is now time to send a destroyer; this time with Marine Commandos.

The writer is a former chief of the naval staff