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Should we engage even farther? Operation „Atalanta” as a possible milestone in the EU Common Security and Defence Policy

KAMIL ŁUKASZ MAZUREK,  CII petersberg series

Eunavfor_ source : licence CCThe Operation EUNAVFOR Somalia (codename “Atalanta”) belongs to this kind of military missions which are at the same time: pioneering, groundbreaking, immensely important, and where failure is not an option. This first and (as for now) only European Union (EU) military naval petersberg mission is essential for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it was created to disrupt and suppress piracy offshore of Somalia and protect shipping through this region. It also demonstrates the EU’s ability to manage an operation which is very demanding and crucial for international trade; it shows European involvement in international security cooperation as well as engagement in humanitarian relief actions; and, last but not least, it reasserts the commitment of the European nations to the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) on the global level. 

As of today, it is even more important to talk about Operation “Atalanta”. Recently the EU has decided to significantly build up its presence in Africa (three new operations since December 2011) which may mean that the region is getting more important in the eyes of the Union policymakers. Moreover, the latest data collected by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) on world piracy shows a dramatic drop in pirate attacks in the first nine months of 2012 (from January to September 2012 there were only 70 attacks compared to 199 in the same period of 2011) in the region where EUNAVFOR operates. Even though it is too soon to estimate the impact “Atalanta” has had on this figure, it is clear that the pressure on pirates must be intensified.

The region where EUNAVFOR operates covers a vast area of the Indian Ocean, including the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea. These waters are the main trade route between Europe and Asia – more than 20% of the global trade passes through these regions; over 80% of international maritime trade sailing through the Gulf of Aden goes to or from Europe; around 12% of globe’s daily crude oil production is shipped by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and most of it goes to Europe. These three facts alone make it one of the most important places for European commerce and economy, and puts the EU in a position to protect it. However, security of waters surrounding Somalia are not only about trade. Piracy exacerbates the already tragic humanitarian situation of the Somali people, which in turn increases migrations (also to Europe) and destabilizes the whole Horn of Africa.

The mission so far

Operation “Atalanta” is a rather large petersberg mission, especially in comparison to other EU operations in Africa. Its original mandate was: to protect vessels of the World Food Programme (WFP) sailing to Somalia; to provide protection, on a case by case evaluation, to merchant ships cruising through the operation waters; to deter, prevent and repress any kind of piracy activities off the Somali coast; to watch over Somali territorial waters; and to arrest, detain and transfer persons who committed acts of piracy. However, in March 2012 it was broadened and now European troops can take offensive actions against pirates on the Somali coast and internal waters.

Somalia and its surrounding waters are the theatre of intense international presence and EUNAVFOR cooperates with a number of missions carried out by states and other international organisations. “Atalanta”’s military personnel has established multiple communication links with commanders of other maritime and inland operations, which help to coordinate actions and avoid unnecessary duplication. Although CSDP naval mission in not the only operation of this kind in this part of the Indian Ocean, as of today, it is by far the most important one, with constant support from the EU member states and the broadest mandate to suppress piracy in the region. On the one hand, EUNAVFOR Somalia is larger than NATO’s Ocean Shield, and on the other, unlike CMF, it has constant financial, material and political support. These facts make it most suitable to lead an even broader range of tasks not only to disrupt piracy, but also to stabilise Somalia.

Until now, the record of EUNAVFOR Somalia is quite impressive. Since it had taken the responsibility of protecting WFP vessels, virtually none of them was pirated or even attacked. It has provided protection to African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) shipments, which are essential for this mission’s success. Moreover, “Atalanta”’s forces have ensured protection of numerous merchant vessels sailing through the International Recommended Transit Corridor and the High Risk Area. Operation planners have also developed robust military-industry cooperation. EUNAVFOR Somalia HQ in Northwood hosts Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa (MSCHOA), which gathers data on piracy activity in the Gulf of Aden and provides 24h/day interactive information about anti-piracy guidance for civilian vessels and their industry operators. Although it is difficult to measure, most experts on the subject believe that the presence of the EU vessels off the Somali coast contributes to the general stability of both – Somalia and the western part of the Indian Ocean. Additionally, the maritime engagement in Somalia has raised awareness of European policymakers and societies on the issue of so much needed long-term efforts to stabilise this failed state and to improve security of the entire Horn of Africa region.

Even though “Atalanta” has already demonstrated its credibility, the truth is that under the present mandate it cannot make real and sustained difference for Somalia’s stability. Piracy is merely an offspring of the tragic situation this country has experienced for the last 20 years. Internal tensions have plunged Somalia into an everlasting civil war which is fuelled not only by ethnic conflicts and utmost poverty, but recently also by religious fundamentalism channelled mainly by terrorists from Al-Shabaab. Until the issue of Somalia’s instability is addressed permanently, EUNAVFOR mission to suppress piracy cannot be fulfilled in the long term.

Further engagement? Possible and desirable

There are two reasons for further broadening “Atalanta”’s mandate. Firstly, as the available data shows, even after EUNAVFOR had been launched, piracy in the region has not only ceased but even increased. In every consecutive year from 2008 to 2011 we saw an increasing number of attacks. However, 2011 witnessed a sharp decrease of ships pirated (ratio of pirates successes fell from 27% in 2010 to 14% in 2011), which shows that hitherto presence of European navies was not the waste of time and effort.* Secondly, a serious decrease of number of attacks has started since “Atalanta” forces began the implementation of the broadened mandate, namely – attacking pirates’ hideouts and caches on the Somali coast. The data from both EUNAVFOR itself and IMB show a sharp reduction of attacks. Although it is wise to hold off from jumping into simple conclusions before precise examination and research is done, the most probable explanation of this new quality in anti-piracy activities is that proactive and offensive actions against pirates “at home” are most effective. Even though it is a success, the EU policymakers and military commanders should not feel too cosy. Pirates are extremely adaptive to new environment and if they felt that pressure is eased, they will surely reintroduce themselves to the waters surrounding Somalia.

Politicians in the EU, along with the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG), should elaborate a new deal to broaden even more the EUNAVFOR’s mandate. The next step in “Atalanta’s” development is to transform it into a real peacemaking operation with both legal back-up and proper military equipment to allow precise airstrikes and spec-ops rides not only on the coast, but also within the Somali mainland. Such an offensive would be pointed not only at pirates and their hideouts, but also, or rather mainly, at the primary security issue of Somalia – Islamists from Al-Shabaab and their allies. Naturally, this “new” EUNAVFOR would need extensive political, financial and materiel support from the EU and its member states, as well as from broader international community and the United Nations (UN). It should be inclusive for other, non-EU nations, and have even better coordination with other operations in the region, especially AMISOM. The UN Security Council Resolution 1851 gives the willing states and international organisations legal basis to carry out, with the consent of the TFG, military operations in the Somali mainland. Whether the EU member states decide to get involved even more in Somalia is to be seen, but this may be one per thousand opportunity to demonstrate that Europe is still in the game.

One may ask why it is EUNAVFOR Somalia that should be expanded, and not the other missions? Among many reasons, two have probably the greatest weight of argument. Firstly, operation “Atalanta” is already the most successful, large enough and longstanding EU military mission in Africa and it is only logical to exploit its merits even more. Secondly, naval operations have the advantage of being virtually immune to possible counterattack from badly equipped adversaries, such as terrorists or insurgents in Somalia, which makes loss of life rather improbable.

EUNAVFOR – opportunity that cannot be missed

If the EU member states want to show credible CSDP which can perform major, longstanding military and civilian operations not only in the proximity of Europe, but anywhere in the world, they should do a lot more than this. Expanded “Atalanta” has the potential to bring added value to international security like none other petersberg mission before. Eradication of piracy from the Gulf of Aden and Somali territorial waters, as well as significant assistance in bringing peace and stability to Somalia itself, would reassure the international community that the European states are still active and powerful players in terms of global security, and that CSDP is not just another European empty brag without real commitment.

For more than 20 years Somalia has been a place where no stable government could be formed, not to mention establishment of institutions like the rule of law or democracy. The last serious attempt of the international community (led by the United States) to stabilise the country failed in 1993 and since then no other global power tried to do so. If the European Union engaged in Somalia more aggressively and succeeded, it would exhibit that not swift and overwhelming (US style), but long-run and patient (EU style) military operation can bring peace to even the most dangerous parts of the world.

* It is important to note here, that “ratio of success” is the percent of successful pirate attacks and does not equal to the previously mentioned overall number of attacks (successful and unsuccessful), which were increasing in the years 2008-2011 and decreased sharply in 2012.

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10 Responses

  1. Great article, thanks a lot.
    I just pessimisticaly presume that the Member States will not be interested in broadening the mission in order to include military operation on the land, as it would signify for them an incredible high risk of getting engaged into a region possibly difficult as Afghanistan.
    However, if it is done evolutionary step by step, like with the last widening of the mandate, then it might work.

  2. I’m afraid you’re right. Indeed, most of European policy makers don’t want to engage in any kind of difficult, military operation with a vague possibility of success. However, there are two things that need to be underlined (one you already mentioned). Firstly, Horn of Africa is an “area of responsibility” for Europeans and if we look at our (EU) presence there from the theory of historical institutionalism, we are bound to deal with the situation this way or another. Of course a lot depends on states’ decisions, but in my opinion, the one that was already taken to broaden Atalanta’s mandate was due to the fact that the EU has been on the path of engagement in this area and now it is difficult to say “ok, let it be as it is, we don’t care” (path dependency, incerasing returns and sunk costs concepts). Secondly, as you mentioned, it may work if the EU will broaden mission’s mandate on a step by step basis, which is im my opinion right course of action. Profound decision for engagement on land using regular troops is out of option (this is the US style), but sending additional navy units with attack helicopters on board and airstrikes does not cost much but would change the situation dramaticly in favor of Somali troops.

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