Kenya’s Disastrous Somali Gamble
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 6th August, 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 16th March Abdelkadir Yusuf Aar who served as the group’s leader in the Juba and Gedo region was killed. On 3rd April another senior al-Shabaab operative, Hassan Abdurahman, was killed in Dhobley. On 11th June 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.
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 16th October. The immediate catalyst for the operation was the kidnapping of several tourists from Kenya by ostensibly al Shabaab militants (It should be noted that al Shabaab never claimed responsibility for these abductions). 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.
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 guerrilla 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 30th October, 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.