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Anti-piracy plan risks worsening Somalia's plight

The EU's decision to expand its mission against Somali pirates to include attacks on land targets will backfire if a long-term follow-up plan is not already in place.

Pirate attacks are a little less frequent than last year, but the European Union has no intention of easing the pressure on Somali outlaws who prowl the Horn of Africa coast and the Indian Ocean.

On Friday, the EU agreed to expand its mission against Somali pirates to include attacks on land targets. The 10 EU warships operating off the Horn are now authorised to strike moored vessels and fuel dumps in "coastal territory and internal waters".

As a tactic to fight piracy, the EU's extension of Operation Atalanta makes a degree of sense. Pirate bases on land will, initially at least, offer little resistance to the EU forces, which will likely be helicopter-borne. The pirates' small boats are no match for the EU's heavily equipped warships; certainly, pirate groups can expect heavy material losses and many casualties.

However, this mission creep will be risky for the Europeans. Attacks without a follow-up plan, as many interventions in the Middle East and Africa have shown in the past, ultimately fail because they leave behind further instability. The pirates, like the Shabaab militia (and the line between the two is now blurred), will be almost impossible to eradicate in the absence of a political solution that helps to build a stable government in the coastal area, and in all of Somalia.

Statistics that have been collected suggest that pirates in Somalia make more money, and have higher life expectancy, than the country's farmers. Pirates claimed $160 million (Dh588 million) in ransoms in 2011. In impoverished, insecure Somalia, turning to piracy could be seen as a rational decision.

Further, any EU military successes will be overshadowed by a downed helicopter or a demolished house full of children. Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate how quickly such missions become military, and public relations, disasters.

The only real solution for piracy requires civil institutions to suppress crime and create legitimate opportunities. That is of course easier said than done, but by working with the country's transitional government, the EU and others can help build those institutions, starting with a well-run army and police forces.

The EU mission faces a long haul to protect shipping in the area, including World Food Programme ships that deliver aid to displaced Somalis. But widening hostilities could hurt those efforts more than help them.

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