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Kenya’s Somali Gamble

2011-11-29 12:00

Hussein Solomon

By any reckoning, 2011 was not a good year for Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Movement of Striving Youth) or al-Shabaab (the Youth) as it is more commonly known. This Islamist and al-Qaeda aligned group in Somalia suffered various setbacks.

In March, Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces together with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) recaptured the town of Bulo Hawo. In April, the town of Dhobley, near the Kenyan border, also fell under the control of the TFG. By August 6, al-Shabaab was driven out of Mogadishu as a result of the co-ordinated attacks from AMISOM and TFG fighters.

In the process, some senior and experienced al-Shabaab commanders were killed. On March 16 Abdelkadir Yusuf Aar who served as the group’s leader in the Juba and Gedo region was killed. On April 3 another senior al-Shabaab operative, Hassan Abdurahman, was killed in Dhobley. On June 11, Fazul Abdullah Mohamed was killed by security forces in Afgoye, north-west of Mogadishu. Not only was Mohamed an al-Shabaab commander but he was also a senior al-Qaeda operative.

In addition to this military pressure from AMISOM and the TFG, al-Shabaab was also suffering from a series of organizational problems. Tensions between the movement’s northern and southern commanders escalated on the ideological and tactical fronts; less money was entering al-Shabaab’s coffers from the Somali diaspora at the same time when support for the movement from the Somali business community was ebbing; and clan militias increasingly challenged al-Shabaab’s territorial hegemony in its heartland of southern Somalia.

Attempting to lure Ethiopia

It is in this context that the authorities in Nairobi embarked on an ill-conceived, badly planned and poorly executed Operation Linda Nchi (Swahili for “Protect the Nation”) which involved hundreds of Kenyan troops crossing the border into Somalia on October. The immediate catalyst for the operation was the kidnapping of several tourists from Kenya by ostensibly al Shabaab militants*. In doing so the government of Mwai Kibaki has played into the hands of al-Shabaab.

For some time now al-Shabaab has been attempting to lure Ethiopia, the US and Kenya into sending boots on to Somali ground. In having a foreign “occupation” force once more on Somali soil, al-Shabaab hopes to play the nationalist card and to unite all factions under its banner whilst simultaneously weakening the TFG which is then seen as the “puppets” of these foreign forces.

Washington, however, has refused to play by al Shabaab’s rules, preferring surgical predator drone strikes. Addis Ababa, having withdrawn their troops and having learned their mistakes from its earlier intervention see no reason to once more re-engage militants on their home turf. Unfortunately, Nairobi still has to learn this painful lesson. Far from using its armed forces to seal its borders with Somalia or using its air force to provide support to TFG forces as it did at Dhobley, Kenya chose to send troops into al-Shabaab’s heartland in southern Somalia to take on the movement directly. This will prove to be a costly mistake for Nairobi.

Objective not clear

In the first instance, the Kenyan authorities were not clear as to the objective of its military intervention. Thus whilst at first, Nairobi stated that their armed forces were pursuing al-Shabaab fighters across the border, subsequent statements suggests that the military objectives became ever more expansive. These expanded objectives included dismantling al-Shabaab itself as well securing Kismayo, an al Shabaab- controlled port, 155 miles from the Kenyan border.

Second, given the expanded objectives and the topography of the region the military force deployed was much too small to attain the avowed objectives.

Third, Kenyan military planners seemed not to have factored the weather when drawing up their plans. One reason for the offensive to have stalled was because of the heavy rains and mud which is slowing the advance.

Fourth, rather than fight the Kenyans in conventional terms, al-Shabaab is employing guerilla tactics – which the Kenyan military unfortunately did not anticipate. Fifth, the intervention is exacerbating popular anger against Kenyans – especially when innocent civilians are being targeted. On October 30, for instance, the Kenyan air force, conducted an aerial bombardment of an internally displaced persons camp in Jilib which resulted in the deaths of five civilians, and the wounding of 45 others. Of the latter, 31 were children. Al-Shabaab has tapped into this popular anger as it recruits more fighters.

It is already clear that Nairobi is seeking a not too gracious exit from the Somali stage. Recently a Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said that if the TFG commits to fighting al-Shabaab (which it has been doing), Kenya will halt its military advance. This Kenyan misadventure in Somalia may well prove to have given al Shabaab a life line.

* It should be noted that al Shabaab never claimed responsibility for these abductions.

Prof Solomon lectures Political Science at the University of the Free State.

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Comments
  • jkivoto - 2011-11-29 15:06

    Professor you got your facts wrong. The Military planners in Kenya know the Somailia terrain too well, Kenya borders Somalia and both terrain and weather are very basic factors when one is going to war. Secondly, with everybody unwilling to engage Al Shabaab and with over 20 yrs without a government, close to a million Somali refugees in Kenya and a series of incurssions into the Kenyan soil, Amison mandate too prohibiting and the security of Kenya at risk, what would have Kenya done? The military operation hasn't stalled and the mondus operandi of Al Shabaab all too well known, this was expected and Kenya has trained urban fighters but Kenya's aim is different from US and Ethiopia who came before. Stablise the country and do this with the support of international community. Kenya can overrun Kismayu but its not the show of mighty but leaving behind a united society. Don't forget, in so doing you have to ensure minimal civilian casualties and humanitarian aid flow reason the operation slowed down, not coz of the rains. Don't forget since the operation started no single ship has been hijacked by pirates in the Indian Ocean.

  • Carel - 2011-11-29 15:44

    there should be a combined Kenyan and Tanzanian force that would drive Al Shabaab northwords until they run out of space, you can win that battle by numbers and if your country is bordering a piece of land with no rule or government - Kenya and to a certain extend Tanzania, suffered a massive loss in tourist numbers because of their election voilence and now what has happened in and around Lamu - I can understands that the Kenyan goverment would want some space between or a buffer zone between Somalia and the Kenyan tourist attractions - careful of the Tanzanian army, they have proved very effective in the past, both countries need to beef up their naval forces and the south african navy can also go occupy some water there - much better than burning the fuel on the south african coastline. Noth-eastern Kenya needs stability and you can only get that by occupying the empty space if you have no control of the coastline.

  • allcoveredinNinjas - 2011-11-29 16:21

    Who's sponsoring Al-Shabaab? This is also closely tied to piracy and the profits from that but has most definately an external state sponsor.

  • Surad - 2011-11-29 16:47

    I absolutely agree the author of the article that Kenya went into mysterious topography that holds some of the fiercest folks on the face of the earth, i also agree that there is little result that Kenya can bring out of this incursion,it is a unwinnable war and it will only cause more collateral damage,it will boost Al-shabab's declining popularity and it will cause more damage and destruction to the already weak Somalia's infrastructure.Somalia is a country where almost every foriegn intervention to construct a functional governmet system fails and continues to fail so what change can Kenya make? I think they are committing themselves to this war so that they use Somalia as a source of gaining foreign donations as their tourism industry is severely suffering from the Global financial crisis and they need another source of income to boost the GDP. I dont understand why these African fellows hate us and get funds to kill our people from the same people who destroyed our continent and keeping us in poverty smartly.

  • wesleywt - 2011-11-29 17:09

    How can the campaign be a failure? Its only been two months now. The rest is just speculation.

  • Surad - 2011-11-29 17:16

    Well said prof Soloman you always hit the nail on the head in regardless of how sensitive or taboo the subject is, this mission is miscalculated and it is a blind diplomacy, you are right for what you said about the consequences and way this may lead to the future peace and stability in the region.it is poorly planned deployment in unfriendly topography and that is how naive and inexperienced is the Kenyan army officers. i think they wanted to proof a point to Uganda and Tanzian, but obviously they didnt picture the even a scene of fighting with unconventional army, or street fighting with bunch of marauding militias who can shoot them from the backyards of their own houses. they didnt picture a society that is unwelcoming and uninviting to their invaders as the Somali people have old foes of territorial argument with the Kenya.

  • Amanuel - 2011-11-30 05:39

    I Thank Dr. Solomon for such insightful article regarding Somalia. What's so irony about this whole drama that is inflicting heavy human and material losses is the attempt by those invading Somalia to point fingers at a country that is not involved in Somali affairs one way or the other. The country which I am referring to is Eritrea who was blamed for the instability in the region only because of its neutral view of the situation. For reasons of his own, the Author did not even mentioned the country, let alone discuss the matter. In 2006, days before Ethiopian incursion, Eritrea was falsly accused of sending 2000 Eritrean soldiers to fight alongside the militants headed by Ahmed Sherif-the current president of TFG. Those" 2000 soldiers" disappeared miraculously without a trace, confirming the unfounded nature of the accusation. And today , Kenyan leaders are openly accusing Eritrea of supplying plane loaded of arms to Al-Shabab which Eritrea sharply rejected and called on UNSC to investigate the matter. The timing of the latest alligation by Kenya was not an accident. It came at a time when UNSC was considering more sanction on Eritrea based on false and fabricated reports of its affiliation with Al-Shabab. All in all, I agree with the Author's assessment of the situation. One could only hope that the Kenyan leaders rethink their position and seek other means of bringing peace and stability in the region. Because, two or even three wrongs don't make things right.

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