African Arguments Editorial: Kenyan incursion into Somalia risks internationalising the conflict
Kenya has sent over 2,000 troops into Somalia to fight the Islamist rebel movement al-Shabaab in the South of the country. The incursion comes as a response to the increasing instability on and within its own borders, most clearly shown by the recent abduction and killing of several tourists and aid workers from the refugee camps on the Kenya Somalia border, and more worryingly, the coastal resort island of Lamu – a favourite with western holiday makers.
Internal instability in Somalia has long been a worry for Kenya, although previously the government seemed to prefer to militarising its North Eastern border rather than venturing into its neighbour’s territory. However, attacks on Kenya’s tourist industry were the final straw, and the way Lamu Island became rapidly deserted seemed a psychological blow to a country that is still getting over the PR nightmare that was the post-election violence of 2007/08. Kenya is not known as a big regional military player – its armed forces have not been deployed aggressively outside their own borders since the 1967 Shifta war where the target was instability in the predominantly Somali North Eastern Province which spread into Southern Somalia.
Whilst this response is understandable, partially defeating al-Shabaab’s military capacity in Somalia risks splintering the movement, making it into a transnational terrorist organisation able to hit targets in cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa. Uganda has already suffered from this with the World Cup final bombing last year at a popular bar in Kampala. Uganda provides around half of the AMISOM force currently deployed in an around Mogadishu in support of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. Two grenade attacks in downtown Nairobi over the last week may be a sign of things to come, with a smaller-scale insurgency fought by al-Shabaab supporters in the metropolitan capitals of their “˜occupiers.’ It would be as well for Kenyan forces to get the job done quickly and then get out, although whether this is a realistic aim is another matter entirely.
It is also important to understand that whilst Kenya may be seeking to destroy al-Shabaab in Southern Somalia, it is likely that abductions in Kenya have been perpetrated by pirates, or those seeking to sell their hostages to al-Shabaab. Kenya may in effect be fighting the general lawlessness in Southern Somalia, hoping to build up a buffer-zone between it and militarised groups now pushed further north.
Additional to the Kenyan operation, there have been reports of participation by US drones (intelligence gathering), which are already known to operate in the country and have carried out missions against al-Shabaab commanders, and even a French warship (immediately denied by the French embassy in Nairobi) rumoured to have bombarded the town of Kusmay (just South of Kismayu). There has also been a report of a military jet dropping bombs on targets near to the al-Shabaab controlled Kismayu, which appears to be the eventual target of the Kenyan advance. It is unclear whose plane this was, and where it came from.
What this shows is that there is already a creeping internationalisation of this conflict. This however may be no bad thing, as regional and international players have for too long avoided expending resources on Somalia’s complex problems. However, it does risk drawing regional players like Kenya further into the conflict when previously they have tried to keep it at arm’s length.