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.
Kenya’s military foray may also fuel small but dangerous pockets of sympathy for the al-Shabaab movement as Somalis hold negative views of the international community. A recent NDI survey concluded that Somalis overwhelmingly reject international intervention in south-central Somalia. Further Al-Shabaab was created in 2006 as a hardline guerilla response to the American-backed Ethiopian military campaign that fought against the Union of Islamic Courts; consequentially one of al-Shabaab’s fundamental platforms is the rejection of all international presence in Somalia. Al-Shabaab’s popularity rested at its lowest point recently: al-Shabaab imposes hardline interpretations of Islam that are not representative of the majority’s Islamic views; al-Shabaab continues to accelerate and amplifies the region’s famine by restricting the movement of aid workers and critical resources; al-Shabaab has resorted to suicide bombings amongst its own people (including last month’s bombing in Mogadishu that killed many students in line for bursaries from the Turkish Government). Recently Somalis held a public rally against al-Shabaab in Mogadishu, the first of its kind in many years. However, Kenya’s military lacks the capacity to sufficiently eradicate al-Shabaab’s presence throughout south-central Somalia and may only reinvigorate the movement to reassert its presence. Following al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu this August, AMISOM forces declared victory whereas al-Shabaab leaders asserted that its forces were only regrouping. As al-Shabaab comprises a number of semi-autonomous cells wh, Kenya’s military faces a daunting challenge in defeating the entire movement. While the Kenyan government’s decision to enter Somalia may represent a combination of desiring to protect the country’s tourism industry while simultaneously positioning key leaders for the country’s upcoming 2012 elections, this military campaign may ultimately further destabilize the region.
This is a fair article, but no-one seems to be really questioning the merits of the intervention. What is Kenya hoping to achieve? I really don’t see what success can come out of the mission, the idea that even with Al-Shabab defeated that stability will arise is highly questionable. That the Kenyans can even achieve the defeat of Al Shabab – is even more debatable. Instead, surely the only thing that will come from it is attacks on innocent civilians in Kenya?
Secondly, Kenya, along with Ethiopia, has long stoked the fire of instability in Somalia. In reality, they’ve not had an interest in stability – last time stability existed it led to wars with both Ethiopia and Kenya, given the Somali populated areas of the Ogaden in the former and NE Kenya in the latter. While Ethiopia has occasionally tried to impose its will on its restive Somali populations, Kenya has long instead played the game of instability, ensuring that ungoverned frontier regions remain the real buffers to encroachment from Somalia.
So what does Kenya hope to achieve? Possibly little more than weakening Al-Shabab, and if this only sustains instability in Somalia, so be it. I don’t think the Kenyan military or its politicians think that stability in Somlia is a realistic goal. The so-called Juba Operation – which has been on the cards for a while – into Somalia could be seen in this light.
US policy is not so different, even if not planned and conceived this way: No-one really thinks it is viable, worth the lives or resources of politically supporting the creation of a viable state in Somalia that is not controlled by “taliban-like” leaders, which is the only realistic path to stability. As such, better to do nothing and let Somalia remain in crisis. When strong groups emerge with potential to launch terrorist attacks overseas – based on the misguided assumption that this is their main aim – drone strikes or blackhawk missions can go and remove them (“draining the swamp”). This too, stokes instability.
In this way, the benefits of doing nothing in Somalia, for US and Somalia’s neighbours stems from an absence of real interest in actual stability, lest it take the form of radical islam or a Somali government seeking to claim territories of its neighbours.
Kenya’s current intervention should be seen in this context, and not necessarily as a sign of a change of heart.
The logical issue behind Kenya’s incursion in Somalia’s territory should not be seen as a problem towards the stabilization of the Horn of Africa. While I agree that Kenya’s military has not involved itself with any serious attack outside the country, it should be noted that the general muscle-flex against the Al-shabab militants, should also earn accolades from all quarters. This is not war against the TFG or her allies, but the Al-Shabab. Kenya has for a long time maintained diplomacy over military power, but then there is a time for such to be turned around. We shouldn’t talk of Kenya failing in her quest, but see this as the only last resort towards elimination of the Al-Shabaab militants. Whether the US is involved or not, Kenya’s interests must be protected. After the incursion, and probably the realization of peace in Somalia, Kenya should be the first to offer assistance to the Somalian Government in whatever way possible.
I think the incursion of Kenya into Somalia is very dangerous for Kenya. Kenya has tried to justify this war as an eradication of Al-Shabaab which is in my opinion unachievable.Firstly the Al-shabaab militia will simply melt away and not give Kenyan forces much of a resistance as we have seen so far. The die -hard will fight but mostly the militia will melt into the general Somali population and wage a hit and run urban warfare just like they did with the Ethiopians in Mogadishu. Secondly if the idea of creating a buffer zone in the Southern Somali region is the ultimate aim then how long will the Kenyan forces stay to stabilize the region?if and when there is a powerful Somali forces to take over from the Kenyan forces and Kenya pulls out, what will stop Al-Shabaab reappearing in some other form be it clan based or religion based. The million dollar question how will a regional semi autonomous government force in Southern Somalia (which is considerably larger the Mogadishu) secure and control the region if the TFG could not do this in the last five years in Mogadishu even with help of the AMISOM?