Seen in the context of jealously guarding Somalia’s territorial waters, the pirates seem more like a coast guard than a group of brigands. They are clearly not as benevolent as, say, the U.S. Coast Guard—but then again, there is no real Somali military that could have created one. Piracy is a spontaneous activity, and is driven by many factors beyond ideology and even greed. The same goes for the factional fighting, which can just as often be about Ethiopia’s unwelcome presence in the country as it can a regular internecine war.
The sad part is, Somalia bears a striking resemblance to the site of another internecine war in which the U.S. is currently embroiled: Afghanistan. Years of collapsed, weak, or nonexistent government, combined with a raging factional civil war driven by clan, tribal, or ethnic loyalties, now coming under the sway of an Islamist movement that grows its popularity every time it imposes justice and order no matter how brutal, with security and economic consequences that reach into every neighboring region in a negative way: this could be either Afghanistan in the late 1990s or Somalia today.
That’s not to argue that the same mistakes are being made, or even that the two countries are analogous in anything beyond the vaguest sense. But no expert will ever argue that Afghanistan is an easy place to reduce into sound bytes and op-eds, neither is Somalia. We are better served by recognizing the many factors we cannot control that are currently driving the chaos in the Horn of Africa than by falling into petty, partisan finger pointing. Such behavior simply doesn’t address the real issue.