Shankar Roy chowdhury
Sept 08, 2009
A few months back the Russian warship Admiral Panteleyev, reportedly responding to a distress signal from the tanker Bulwai Bank, under attack from Somali pirates 120 km east of the Somali coast, tracked down a captured Iranian trawler being used as a command-and-control ship for pirate vessels, and apprehended 12 Pakistani nationals on board, including its captain, Mohammad Zamal. Russian investigators found that those apprehended were well trained and familiar with weapons handling (seven AK-47 assault rifles as well as pistols were recovered), as well as with military and naval procedures. There are other persistent media reports of "well-trained" Pakistanis directing Somali piracy operations near the coast of East Africa — off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden. If this is correct, it would appear to indicate that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, that country’s official clearing house for covert and subversive operations, may have extended its charter to Somalia and the Horn of Africa. This is a matter of concern for India, since in addition to general piracy, smuggling and gun-running, there is every likelihood of the ISI directing its marine jihadis to specifically seek out and target Indian merchant shipping, or ships bound for or out of Indian ports, and interdict or interfere with Indian maritime activity to whatever degree feasible. Indian economic interests and energy security are likely to be particularly affected because the Afghanistan experience indicates that these are always primary targets of Pakistani quasi-state covert entities, whether labelled Al Qaeda, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba or any other.
Ninety per cent of India’s total overseas trade, in particular the vital energy resources on which the country is critically dependent for 80 per cent of its demand, is carried by sea routes focusing in and out of Mumbai, the principal port in the country. The country’s maritime jugular traverses westwards through the Arabian Sea and connects with destinations in Europe and the energy centres of the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the West Asian region through strategic choke points along the East African and Arabian littorals around the Horn of Africa. Notable among these are the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Hormuz at the entrance to the Red Sea en route to the Suez Canal and beyond, and the Straits of Bab el Mandep at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. These waters are India’s new frontiers for national security.
Somalia lies on the East African coast of the Arabian Sea, across the street from Mumbai as it were, in a position strategic to India’s maritime interests, dominating the Gulf of Aden through which passes India’s main maritime expressway. A predominantly Muslim country, the largest in the Horn of Africa, Somalia’s traditional faith has now acquired increasingly radical overtones under the influence of indigenous jihadi organisations like the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and Al Shabab ("The Youth"), which have taken root in the region, reinforced by foreign fighters from ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, with its lack of any central authority, and very strong clan-based affinities and culture, Somalia has much in common with the Pashtun regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, notwithstanding the obvious differences in ethnicity, and provides similar environments for rapid spread of jihadi influence. The country has been ripped apart by bitter and intermittent inter-clan wars ever since the collapse of President Mohammad Siad Barre’s national government in 1991. A United Nations Peacekeeping Force was sent to maintain peace and restore order in the country, in which the Indian Army’s 66 Mountain Brigade formed part of the mission. As always, the Indian contingent performed outstandingly, but the United Nations were unsuccessful overall and had to withdraw after suffering casualties. (The Hollywood movie Black Hawk Down is based on a true incident during that period.) Since then, constant internecine conflicts between warring clans and warlords, military intervention by neighbouring Ethiopia and the increasing intensity of radical jihad have almost totally destabilised the country and reduced Somalia to a status worse than Afghanistan. The prevalent state of total anarchy has impacted not only neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya, but also spread to the seas around the Horn of Africa, particularly the Gulf of Aden, which have become zones for free enterprise for increasingly well-equipped and directed Somali pirates preying on international merchant shipping from fishing trawlers to super tankers which traverse these waters at their peril.
Notwithstanding any potential fallout targeted specifically at Indian shipping, piracy in the Gulf of Aden is also a cause of major international concern. After a slow start, Western governments dispatched naval ships to safeguard shipping in the region, irrespective of nationality. Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150) was established as an American-led multinational naval anti-piracy mission, based on logistical facilities in the adjacent French African enclave of Djibouti on the Red Sea. The task force consists of ships from seven nations, with a rotating command structure between the members. The Indian Navy has not contributed to CTF-50, but operates independently with a naval detachment in the region, initially based on INS Tabar, later replaced by INS Mysore, on a bilateral understanding with the Somali government, which though severely incapacitated and barely functional, nevertheless remains the legitimate national authority. The Indian Navy has performed very successfully ints anti-piracy mission, in many ways a marine replica of the counter-insurgency operations being conducted by its sister service in the Kashmir Valley. However, Somalia and the Gulf of Aden are as yet small clouds on a distant horizon. But if, as in Afghanistan, a "plausibly deniable" Pakistani intervention through the tested pattern of jihadi surrogates is developing on the East African littoral to turn the Gulf of Aden into a maritime Khyber Pass for Indian shipping and trade, the Indian government will have no choice but to put appropriate counter-measures in place at the earliest, to forestall a Limburg-type suicide bombing or an Achille Lauro-type hijacking and passenger hostage situation involving Indian shipping or personnel. All in all, the Gulf of Aden (and possibly even the Persian Gulf) might turn into a long-duration "Line of Control" proxy war commitment for the Indian Navy.
Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury (Retd) is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former Member of Parliament