The documentary The Project, shown this week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, gives a glimpse into one future for the war on terrorism.
The film documents the creation of the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) to hunt the pirates that have menaced the coastal waters of Somalia in recent years. But the mission is very similar to the large-scale counterinsurgencies America fought in Iraq and is still fighting in Afghanistan. Train the locals to fight the bad guys, so the Westerners don’t have to fight them.
But whereas the programs to train Iraq’s military and the Afghan police force required at the peak tens of thousands of Americans, the PMPF had only a few dozen South African ex-special operations officers funded by the United Arab Emirates.
Roger Carstens, one of the stars of the documentary and also a former counterinsurgency adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan, says in the movie, he just saw how this kind of mission did not work with more than 150,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. He came to Somalia to observe whether this task could be accomplished with only a few hundred men.
The film, by two former 60 Minutes producers, Adam Ciralsky and Shawn Efran, documents in excruciating detail how hard the job is. The film captures scenes from the training in the seaport of Bosaso, where young Somali men are literally taught how to tie their boots. The South African trainers complain that the recruits are so malnourished that they can’t complete a basic run without sustaining serious injury. One South African shouts, “In this camp, I am the sultan and you will listen to me.”
The film starts with interviews with Indians who are missing friends and relatives who have been kidnapped by pirates trolling the coast of Somalia off the MV Royal Grace and MT Smyrni. The interviews are compelling. A young woman cries about how she fears she won’t see her father. Another young man says how much he misses his best friend. The PMPF is supposed to be the cavalry to rescue these forgotten victims of piracy where the U.N., the Indian government, and others have failed.
But the efforts of the PMPF are slow going. The film turns dark on one excursion when the largely white trainers suspect a mutiny is underfoot on a mission away from the base camp. The film captures Carstens in particular giving updates through the day, noticing menacing details like the presence of khat leaves, a popular drug in the region that yields a high similar to marijuana. Then one hears the crackle of gunfire in the air, the Somali soldiers begin yelling at Carstens about his camera. The screen goes black. When it comes back on, a South African trainer who went by “RSM” has been murdered.
The initial idea for the PMPF came from Erik Prince, the founder and first head of the military contractor Blackwater. In the film, Prince compares piracy to a home infestation: “If you have a problem with wasps in your yard, you don’t follow them around with a spray can,” he says, making the case that a ground force was needed to root out the pirates in their coves on land instead of trying to seize their ships at sea.
Prince, however, is not the first military contractor to have this idea. In his book, The Pirates of Somalia, Jay Bahadur tells the story of a former Puntland president who hired a British contractor, Hart Security, to create a force to protect local waters from illegal fishing. In 2002, Hart Security lost the contract to a new company, Somcan, which dissolved in 2005. Some of the Somalis trained as coastal police were out of jobs, and reportedly went rogue. A 2008 report by Chatham House, a British think tank, quotes the skipper of a hijacked Russian tugboat saying that several of his captors were former members of the units trained by Hart and Somcan.
In 2013, there is a chance the PMPF could meet the same fate. While there is a skeletal crew of trainers that remain at the base, most of the force has been dismantled after the UAE cut funding in 2012 following the murder of the South African, RSM.
The film does end on a positive note. Using a skiff captured from the pirates and a small force with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, the PMPF confronts pirates who have kidnapped the crew of the MV Iceberg. The crew of the MV Iceberg were first taken hostage on March 29, 2010. The PMPF rescued them at the end of December 2012 after an 11-day gun battle. That battle is captured in the film. At the end on the beach, the film shows the bedraggled crew, exhausted and relieved.
The Project is a compelling story about fighting pirates in Somalia. It is also an important look at what the post-American counterinsurgency looks like.