NAIROBI, Kenya — Stamping out Somalia's piracy scourge using U.S. warships or military force will be virtually impossible, according to maritime experts who said Tuesday the real problems lie ashore in the ashes of Somalia's failed state.
Fixing those problems could take decades, and the U.S. already tried intervening — 17 years ago in a failed humanitarian mission that ended with helicopters shot down and dead U.S. soldiers dragged through Mogadishu's sand-swept streets.
"It's understandable to find people yelling at their televisions, saying 'shoot them all or stop them,'" Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, managing director of Dryad Maritime Intelligence Service in Britain, said of the pirates. "You have the might of international navies, and you can't end this?"
But sending in more warships is like "sticking a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound," he said. "The fact is, what you see at sea is a manifestation of the problems ashore in Somalia."
The Islamic country of 8 million people disintegrated in 1991 when warlords toppled the president. Since then, it's been ruled by heavily armed rival clans, hit by famine, and suffered relentless outbreaks of street-fighting that turned it into a no-go zone for most foreigners.
The U.S. dispatched troops in 1992 as part of a U.N. relief operation to feed hordes of hungry civilians, but the Americans became entangled in local clan warfare. Months later, militias shot down two helicopters and killed 18 American soldiers in a battle recounted in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."
Images of gunmen dragging the bodies of U.S. soldiers through Mogadishu became an icon for those opposed to U.S. involvement overseas. Then-President Bill Clinton ordered a U.S. withdrawal and promised no troops would be deployed there again unless there was a clear U.S. national interest.
Somalia's anarchy, though, has come back to haunt.
U.S. officials believe al-Qaida has operatives there, and hit at least one suspected terror base in 2007.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday he saw no immediate need to bulk up the military response to piracy on the high seas. On Monday, the day after U.S. Navy snipers shot dead three Somali pirates holding American freighter Capt. Richard Phillips hostage, President Barack Obama vowed that Washington was newly committed to halting "the rise of piracy," though he didn't say how.
It's a battle America is already involved in.
In December, the U.S. pushed a resolution through the U.N. Security Council, clearing the way for international forces to conduct operations on shore in Somalia against pirate havens. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had said Washington wanted to be sure forces could conduct "hot pursuit" of pirates on land if necessary.
That hasn't happened.
Pirates operate openly in several towns along the coast, but attacking those sanctuaries would be problematic because intelligence is thin and there are almost no easy targets. Gunmen and guns are rampant in Somalia, and pirates like all insurgents easily meld into the civilian population.
"You have to be able to tell the difference between good guys and bad guys, and they all look very similar," Gibbon-Brooks said.
The same holds true on the high seas.
Pirates have begun to capture larger vessels for use as "mother ships," enabling their tiny skiffs to operate hundreds of miles offshore. But while U.S. Defense officials say privately they would like to focus on disabling such ships, it's difficult to distinguish pirates masquerading as fishermen from the real thing.
The international community is desperate to free the dozen or so hijacked ships moored along Somali's coast, waiting for ransoms to be paid. But attacking them would endanger the hundreds of innocents aboard, who are essentially the pirates' human shields.
Gibbon-Brooks said each ship had an average of 25 kidnapped crew aboard and perhaps 30 pirates.
Most nations and ship owners have been reticent to use military options because they fear civilian casualties and damage to precious cargo. Beyond that, pirates have rarely harmed hostages.
While America's own rescue turned out well Sunday, a similar French-led rescue Friday left one French citizen dead. And in November, the Indian navy sunk a Thai-owned fishing trawler after coming under fire, killing 15 of the 16 sailors aboard.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the U.S. and its allies is the sheer size of the seas around the Gulf of Aden and Somalia's 1,900-mile coastline, the longest in Africa. It's impossible for ships to be everywhere at once, and they can only guard a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of vessels that transit the region annually.
In October, NATO sent a seven-ship naval force to the Gulf of Aden, and the European Union sent its own flotilla.
The coalition has had some success: two military helicopters drove off pirates who had boarded a Chinese cargo ship as the crew hid behind locked doors. Indian sailors captured 23 pirates who had been threatening a merchant vessel and handed them over to Yemen for prosecution.
But pirates countered by increasing operations outside the Gulf of Aden.
"They're expanding," said Noel Choong, who heads the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur. They're "getting bolder and more desperate to get ships."
On Tuesday, pirates nabbed a Greek-managed ship with 22 Filipino seamen aboard in the Gulf of Aden, with another group of pirates in speedboats taking a Lebanese-owned cargo ship off Somalia's eastern coast.
The incidents brought the total number of reported attacks this year alone to least 78. Pirates now hold at least 17 ships and 300 crew.
While there have been calls for companies to place armed guards on vessels, most experts believe that would only escalate conflict and spark firefights. Gibbon-Brooks said pirates typically fired across bows to stop vessels and so far have not intentionally targeted crew.
"For many people it's a mystery why we let pirates get away with it. But everyone usually comes home unharmed," Gibbon-Brooks said. "The point is, life is precious, it makes no sense to hazard it."
Analysts say sailors best options may be those already have: evasive maneuvers, swamping pirate skiffs with wake, forcing them back with fire hoses. Some have suggested traveling in sea convoys.