An escalation of attacks from pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2007 and 2008 raised a number of alarms about the threat of piracy. According to a report from the Atlantic Council, “Since 2008, Somali pirates have attacked more than 620 vessels, hijacked over 175 private and commercial ships, and held over 3,000 people from more than forty countries hostage.” Since then, however, real progress has been achieved. As Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro outlined in a speech at the Atlantic Council last year, “According to figures from the U.S. Navy, we are on track to experience a roughly 75 percent decline in overall pirate attacks this year compared with 2011… [and in] 2011, the number of successful pirate attacks fell by half compared to 2010.” This has been achieved through a multifaceted approach using all means of national power, including military power by expanding the use of naval assets; collaboration with the private sector by empowering industry to protect itself; legal enforcement through effective prosecution and incarceration; targeting networks with financial tracking; development and governance working to improve credible governing institutions and law enforcement in Somalia; and first and foremost through diplomatic engagement with the international community.

While piracy on the East Coast of Africa is in decline, on the West Coast it is on the rise. This is a very different phenomenon. On the West Coast it is more based on robbery and hijacking close to the shore, rather than the hostage-taking and ransom seen off the coast of Somalia.

While anti-piracy efforts have shown results, the Atlantic Council report points out that the cost of the counter-piracy is high, “The naval response alone cost the United States and its allies some $1.27 billion in 2011,” stating, “Self-protection efforts by the shipping industry may offer a sustainable and cost-effective alternative, but a set of enabling policies is urgently needed.”

These issues are important to both U.S. and African security concerns and present both models of success and opportunities for progress. However, as cooperation continues on these near term threats it is also important not to lose sight of the long-term challenges. In a recent essay for Foreign Policy, Gordon Adams warns, “through a growing security assistance program and special operations forces action, U.S. engagement in Africa is shifting from a focus on governance, health, and development to a deepening military engagement” Adding, that security-focused engagement could “backfire, harming our long-term foreign policy interests.”

As engagement with Africa on security interests deepens it is vital that broader concerns, including more capable and responsive civilian governments and economies, are not ignored and put to the side. In addition to the harm on Africa, it also raises the likelihood of increased hostility toward the United States. Adams points out there is an applicable lesson to learn from America’s experience with Latin America during the Cold War, and America’s focus on building security and anti-Communism over long-term democracy and goodwill towards the U.S., which led to a resentful population that saw America as a contributing to security states. The lesson not to ignore progress on governance and democracy should be heeded.

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