Could the Coast Guard Defeat Somalia's Pirates?

The counterpiracy plan outlined Wednesday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was short on specifics, but long on nuance. Clinton committed to tracking and freezing the Somali bandits' finances—something that could prove difficult—while also working with shipping conglomerates and insurance companies to address "gaps in their self-defense measures." With a heavy military presence in the region all but off the table, given officials' remarks on the subject, what could that mean? (Story continued below...)

John Patch, a retired Navy commander who now teaches at the U.S. Army War College, has one possible answer. In the past few months, Patch has repeatedly said the global security threat posed by pirates is "overstated." But if Washington now feels compelled to respond to the surge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Patch argues, the best approach would be to treat the problem as a law-enforcement issue, not a military mission. NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul spoke to him about why, if the U.S. is to play any armed role in responding to the Somali pirates, the Coast Guard might be its best bet. Excerpts:

Paul: You've recommended sending out Coast Guard ships to the Somali coast. Why the Coast Guard?
When threats concern law enforcement, the Coast Guard is manned, trained and equipped more appropriately to deal with them. For example, they know how to gather evidence against pirates during the actual incident—filming it, taking pictures of the detainee, getting biometric evidence or fingerprints to prove this is actually the guy who pulled the trigger. We have to consider what are the rules for how to detain and treat the prisoner. Obviously, we have to be careful given previous issues that have negatively impacted views about the United States.

The Navy can't do those things?
No, they're not trained in that. The Navy is a conventional force with guns and missiles designed to take on conventional adversaries. When they're out doing law enforcement—what we call "ash and trash" missions—then they don't get their other missions done. Also, the endgame is to prosecute these guys and put them in jail. But there has been a couple of instances where the U.S. and other navies have been involved with piracy shootouts and had to let the pirates go. Recently, that happened to the Dutch.

So because the Coast Guard has interdicted drug shipments, for example, they're better equipped?
The Coast Guard has very extensive training in how to use small law-enforcement detachments, called LEDETs. They know how to use handcuffs, Tasers, tear gas—nonlethal means like police officers use. They're a combination law-enforcement agency and conventional military force. So when you're talking about essentially policing Somalia's waters, the law-enforcement aspects of the problem simply make the Coast Guard more suitable.

Does the Coast Guard have the capabilities and the resources to police Somali waters?
There are only so many Coast Guard people and ships, and they're already overwhelmed with missions. So it's not a very practical solution unless you put it in an international light—meaning, a U.N.-sanctioned police monitoring force in Somali waters with, say, 20 nations ponying up law-enforcement vessels and blessings by the Hague, Interpol, etc. That is a potential solution. But it's very costly. It would require lots of ships. And you would have to have the approval and involvement of the transitional government in Mogadishu.

The Coast Guard has had different missions thrown at it—drug interdiction, terrorism and homeland security—that some say have taken it away from its core mission. Does it have the resources for this new one?
Coast Guard leaders would probably say exactly that—we are the best suited, but we don't have the resources. So then you have two options. You can give them the resources, but it would take time and money for that to work—probably five years. The other option is to rack and stack your priorities, and just walk away. You figure, the problem isn't important enough, so you move to the next issue and accept a certain amount of piracy coming out of Somalia. That's my fundamental argument; the impact on the global economy is minimal and there's no existential threat to the United States. We should be careful about how agitated we get over piracy.