LONDON - President Barack Obama and the U.S. military drew high praise Monday for the liberation of an American sea captain held by Somali pirates, but some military experts fear the fatal shooting of three pirates will lead to an escalation of the conflict off the coast of Somalia.
They warn that pirate attacks will not end with the freedom of Capt. Richard Phillips and may turn more violent now that the world's most powerful military has used skilled snipers to kill three pirates.
There is no sign of an international consensus about how best to deal with the bandits. Some countries are willing to pay ransom to free their nationals, while France and the United States have chosen to attack instead.
'Obama has won the respect of his allies,' said Robert Fox, defense correspondent for London's Evening Standard newspaper. 'It was very decisive, very high-risk, and it could have gone badly wrong. But it's an escalation, and it shows that this really is a permanent problem, not just a colorful story, and it will take a substantial amount of work.'
Fox said the U.S. government was now pressing Europe's governments to step up surveillance efforts and do more to fight the scourge. He said more action would be needed to 'clean out' pirate enclaves.
Some military strategists believe it may ultimately be necessary to attack the pirates' base in Somalia, much as the British did two centuries ago. But few have the appetite for another land operation in Somalia, where a U.S. military foray in the early 1990s ended in humiliation. And the cost in civilian casualties would likely be extremely high, some warn.
'That would be nuts,' said Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent and State Department counterterrorism specialist. 'These people are not organized into any military force, they are intermingled with women and children. You're talking about wiping out villages.'
He said the U.S. action - and a French attack a few days earlier on a pirate-held yacht with hostages on board - were corrective measures that did not solve the underlying problem.
'When you allow a bunch of Somali clans to grab their weapons and head to sea and collect millions of dollars in ransom, you can't be surprised when it gets out of control,' he said. 'You need an international coalition, with all the countries that have flag ships, to make it impossible for the pirates to get in a boat and leave the shore. Otherwise the ships will continue to be sitting ducks.'
Johnson has in the past criticized Obama as inexperienced, but he said the new commander in chief deserves credit for using established national security procedures to deal with the crisis while refraining from making comments that would have inflamed the situation.
'He stepped back and let the professionals do what they are supposed to do,' Johnson said.