Adm. Robert Willard, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said navy patrols alone cannot stop the hijacking of ships if pirates' bases onshore are allowed to operate without interference. The international community is spending millions of dollars a day maintaining a flotilla of warships to protect key shipping lanes off East Africa.
"The organizers, the funders are the central problem ... but the international community has been unable to determine how to tackle the problem onshore," Willard told a regional forum in Malaysia.
"Clearly, one thing is to help Somalia recover from being the ungoverned state that it is," he said.
"Unless the international community goes to the root, and not the far end of the problem, it won't be solved."
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a longtime dictator and then turned on each other, plunging the country into chaos and anarchy. A transitional government, established in 2004 and backed by about 9,000 African Union troops, has been fighting Islamist insurgents.
Last year, pirates seized 53 vessels and captured a record 1,181 hostages, almost all of them off the Somali coast. Some 30 ships and more than 600 hostages are still in pirates' hands.
Pirates are becoming increasingly violent in retaliation to navy interference in their multimillion dollar trade. Earlier this year pirates killed four American hostages while U.S. Navy warships were shadowing the hijacked yacht, the first time pirates had done that.
The U.N. Security Council last month demanded that Somalia's feuding president and parliament reach agreement quickly on holding elections by August when the mandate for the country's transitional government ends.
Somali lawmakers — who in February unilaterally extended their own mandate by three years — have been vowing for months to hold a presidential vote despite the president's objections. The president wants to extend his term for a year without a vote. AP