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On 29 June 2012, gunmen kidnapped four aid workers and a driver from Dadaab refugee camp on Kenya’s border.(2) A couple of days later, 15 people were killed in attacks on churches in the Kenyan town of Garissa.(3) Both of these incidents raise questions about the strength of Kenya’s army and the entire reasoning behind its invasion of Somalia. The Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) was supposed to have secured the Kenyan-Somali border and nearby towns. These terrorist attacks, attributed to the Islamist militants of Al-Shabaab, imply that this has not been done. Moreover, the strikes suggest Kenya’s invasion of Somalia has been in vain.
The exact purpose of Kenya’s incursion, while under much scrutiny, is still unclear. Initially, it was seen as a response to a series of terrorist attacks on Westerners in Kenya. But, while the kidnappings of Western tourists may have sparked the invasion, it later became clear that it had been planned long before. Kenyan officials said it was becoming impossible to co-exist with a failed state next door.(4) Nairobi was more interested in stabilising Somalia as a whole than simply stopping cross border attacks. A senior Kenyan official remarked that it was not about tourism. Rather, Nairobi had decided that it could not “achieve economically what it want[ed] with the situation the way it [was] in Somalia.”(5)
The move, whatever its motive, was widely criticised. It was suggested that such an inexperienced army had no chance of winning a counter-insurgency conflict. Given Ethiopia’s bad experience in Somalia a couple of years previously, analysts wondered why Kenya, which lacked Ethiopia’s military prowess, stood a better chance of stabilising this war torn country.(6) This paper explores the possibility that, despite the recent terrorist attacks, Kenya, aided by African Union (AU) forces, is doing far better than critics of the invasion had predicted. While politically there is a long way to go and the region is still by no means stabilised, militarily advances have certainly been made.
One step backwards, two steps forwards
Kenya’s troops in Somalia have not had an easy ride. Their initial invasion seemed to be poorly planned and doomed from the outset. Critics were certain that the KDF had bitten off more than it could chew.(7) The Independent suggested that the invasion had “stirred up the warlords and rekindled popular support for fundamentalists whose willingness to let Somalis starve rather than receive foreign aid had left them widely hated.”(8) Al-Shabaab had made a series of poor policy decisions prior to the incursion and it was argued that they were in serious decline;(9) the presence of foreign troops would only allow them to regain support.
Critics also pointed out that the planning of Operation Linda Nichi exemplified how ill-prepared the Kenyan army was. The KDF invaded Somalia during the wet season. This was an awful decision, which led to many months of being bogged down in Somali territory, allowing the Al-Shabaab guerrillas time to regroup.(10) The element of surprise was lost, and the invasion suffered as a result. This inauspicious start was seen as a case in point: Kenya’s invasion had been a “serious miscalculation.”(11)
Not only were Kenyan troops badly organised and tactically unaware, but they also lacked adequate firepower. They entered Somalia with insufficient strength to stabilise even the regions adjacent to Kenyan territory.(12) Woefully undermanned with an estimated 1,000 strong force,(13) they resorted to using many proxy armies within Somalia.(14) These tended to be unreliable and with wavering allegiances.(15) Before invading, the KDF gave guns and rudimentary training to any ethnic Somalis willing to cross the border and fight against the militants. These militias were supposed to provide the manpower to fill the gaps created by Al-Shabaab defeats. Unfortunately, they were often less than effective and labelled by relief agencies as being “more frightening to ordinary Somalis than Al-Shabaab.”(16)
Finally, it was suggested that embarking on a war in Somalia was not the best way to reduce terrorist attacks at home. It was widely believed that by waging war Kenya had opened itself up to much larger rebel reprisals.(17) Shortly after the invasion, Al-Shabaab threatened to retaliate against Kenya for the offensive and they were true to their word, setting off two grenades in Nairobi in mid-October 2011.(18) Since the war began, many foreign Governments have warned that a large-scale terrorist attack in Nairobi is imminent.(19) Britain has placed Kenya under a travel advisory.(20) As such, the war has done no favours for the tourism industry it was supposed to rescue. The recent terrorist attacks in Kenya over the last month appear to underline this point. Have Kenya’s troops really improved the situation in Somalia at all?
This paper would argue that they have. While recent Al-Shabaab aggression does not paint a rosy picture of the situation in Somalia, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Kenya, with the help of the African Union (AU), has made dramatic inroads in Somalia that should be applauded. The problem, as always, is that no news is good news whilst bad news is all over the media. The recent strikes on Kenyan border areas were widely reported but the progress that has been taking place gradually over the last couple of months has been largely passed over. Militarily it is undeniable that the situation in Somalia has been improving.
Since their integration into the African Union’s Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in February,(21) the KDF has gone from strength to strength. Al-Shabaab may now, at long last, be in decline. In May 2012, African Union troops and Somali Government forces captured the town of Afgoye just south of Mogadishu, thereby cutting Al-Shabaab territory in half.(22) In the same month, the Islamist militants confirmed the fall of the Southern town of Afmadow.(23) This was one of their last remaining bases. Perhaps most significant is the news that Al-Shabaab has recently lost one of its main training camps, a former prison known as Lanta-buro, 40 km from Mogadishu.(24)
Kenya is, of course, relying heavily on the support of AMISOM, which is overwhelmingly made up of Ugandan forces.(25) Nevertheless, their progress should be acknowledged. The critics who predicted an early defeat because of a poorly organised and doomed campaign have misjudged its military capabilities. With Al-Shabaab troops on the back foot, it is quite conceivable that the Islamist militants’ influence in the region will be greatly reduced, as Kenya had intended.
Furthermore, whilst the Kenyan people appear to be rallying around their cause in Somalia, Al-Shabaab seems to have lost any support they might once have had from the Somali population. In the face of the recent attacks on Kenyan border towns, Muslim leaders in Kenya have agreed to form self-defence groups to protect churches.(26) Adam Wachu, head of the Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims remarked that it was “not going to be allowed to have a sectarian division in this country – whoever wants to do that will of course fail.”(27) He said that Kenya was resolved to “stand together as one united front.”(28) In contrast, Al-Shabaab has, so far, been unable to use the presence of foreign invaders to gain the support of the people.(29) Abdulrashid Hashi of the International Crisis Group remarked that Al-Shabaab has “lost the support of the Somali people.”(30) All of this bodes well for a Kenyan military victory.
Sorting out Somalia
The problem is that a military victory for AMISOM does not ensure that Kenya will achieve its aim of creating stability in Somalia. From this perspective, it might have quite a long way to go. As many critics argued at the start of the invasion, Al-Shabaab is merely one symptom of Somalia’s volatility. Even if Kenya does succeed in driving them out, there is no guarantee that the failed state next door will not continue to disappoint and create problems for its neighbour.
The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) may well be part of the problem, rather than the solution. There are numerous complaints of corruption and of TFG troops robbing innocent civilians.(31) August 2012 is the deadline for this weak transitional administration to form a permanent Government and there are many worries that bitter internal divisions and gross corruption will hinder this process.(32) It is plausible that the post- 20 August 2012 Government will differ only slightly from the one that has done so little for the country for the past eight years.(33) Unfortunately, the military successes we have been seeing may not mean much if the political process falls apart.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, the transition to a new Government is likely to be externally imposed by either the UN or the AU.(34) If the new Government lacks sufficient Somali backing, it is likely to fail at the first hurdle. There is a danger that Kenya’s presence in Somalia, if Al-Shabaab is defeated, could become more of a colonising mission than a stabilising one and turn the Somali population against them.(35) The Somali coastline, which is over 1,000 miles long, is both strategically and economically vital to the world economy and there is a danger that the invading nations may wish to covet their neighbours’ land.(36) If the AU won the war, it is feasible that a power vacuum may ensue, causing even more havoc for the Somali people. It could even herald the return of the warlords, whose predations ravaged the country before the arrival of Al- Shabaab.
It is conceivable, however, that while driving out the Islamist militants may not stabilise Somalia, it could have other benefits. Al-Shabaab has enforced draconian policies over the last couple of years and refused Western aid at crucial times of famine purely because of its donors’ ideologies. Even if the only benefit of destroying the group was the subsequent influx of aid, that would be one bonus for the struggling Somali population. Furthermore, with Al-Shabaab out of the picture, the political situation could well be easier to negotiate. AL-Shabaab’s defeat, on its own, may not bring stability, but it could allow the roads to be paved for internal solidity in the future. It would certainly give the Somali people more of a chance to enforce a credible Government without living in fear of terrorism.
Nevertheless, this is all academic if the AU fails to finish the Islamist militants off. The recent terrorist attacks are evidence that the rebel group is by no means down and out just yet. There is concern amongst analysts that even though Al-Shabaab is on the back-foot at the moment, they may have been driven underground.(37) It is possible that this is just the beginning of a long protracted guerrilla conflict much like America’s war in Iraq. Furthermore, there is historical evidence, particularly from Vietnam, to suggest that fighting an ideology with guns is synonymous with defeat. No matter how lost Al-Shabaab appears to be now, its ideology is unlikely to be destroyed with weaponry, and this is a problem that the AU is bound to face.
The AU’s military progress has been dramatic and, so far, sustained. It has surpassed all expectations and it has not won yet. The KDF must continue advancing to Kismayo to seize the final strategic town that Al-Shabaab holds dear. They need to take control of the port town’s revenues, a “perennial source of inter-clan conflict” and redistribute the funds equitably throughout the region.(38) This will no doubt be a difficult battle but one that, on the basis of what they have done so far, is definitely feasible. In many ways Kenya’s glass is, rather unexpectedly, half full.
However, the question remains of what will become of Somalia. If Al-Shabaab are defeated but the new permanent Government, due to be introduced in August 2012, is still covered in corruption, the fight for Somalia’s reconciliation will have been for nothing. This paper would argue, perhaps optimistically, that without Al-Shabaab terrorising civilians, the country stands a much higher chance of being stabilised. But therein lies the rub. If the long overdue peace is brought about by an external influence and another corrupt Government, not backed by its local people, is introduced, peace in the Juba Valley may still be a long way off.
Written by Jess Moody (1)
(1) Contact Jessica Moody through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict and Terrorism Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) Mwachiro, K., ‘Kenya church attacks kill 15 in Garissa’, BBC News, 1 July 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(4) Gettleman, J., ‘Kenyan motives in Somalia predate recent abductions’, The New York Times, 26 October 2011, http://www.nytimes.com.
(5) Zenko, M., ‘What’s wrong with Kenya’s invasion of Somalia’, The Atlantic, 28 October 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com.
(6) Gettleman, J., ‘Kenyan motives in Somalia predate recent abductions’, The New York Times, 26 October 2011, http://www.nytimes.com.
(8) Howden, D., ‘UN backed invasion of Somalia spirals into chaos’, The Independent, 15 December 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk.
(9) Warner, L., 2012. From diplomacy to invasion: Will Kenya be the next country that fails to stabilise Somalia? Journal of International Peace Operations, 7(5), pp. 1-3.
(10) Warner, L., 2012. In Somalia Kenya risks death by a thousand cuts. Prism, 3(3), pp. 108-109.
(11) Gettleman, J., ‘Kenyan motives in Somalia predate recent abductions’, The New York Times, 26 October 2011, http://www.nytimes.com.
(12) Warner, L., 2012. In Somalia Kenya risks death by a thousand cuts. Prism, 3(3), pp. 115.
(13) Bahadur, J., ‘Linda Nichi: A first quarter review’, Somalia Report, 18 January 2012, http://www.somaliareport.com.
(15) Warner, L., 2012. In Somalia Kenya risks death by a thousand cuts. Prism, 3(3), pp. 115.
(16) Howden, D., ‘UN backed invasion of Somalia spirals into chaos’, The Independent, 15 December 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk.
(17) Gettleman, J., ‘Kenyan motives in Somalia predate recent abductions’, The New York Times, 26 October 2011, http://www.nytimes.com.
(18) Kron, J., ‘Kenyan offensive is not welcome, Somalia’s president says’, The New York Times, 24 October 2011, http://www.nytimes.com.
(19) Bahadur, J., ‘Linda Nichi: A first quarter review’, Somalia Report, 18 January 2012, http://www.somaliareport.com.
(21) Foreign and Commonwealth Office, http://www.fco.gov.uk.
(22) ‘AU troops seize strategic Somali town’, Aljazeera, 26 May 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(23) ‘Al-Shabaab confirm loss of major Somali town’, Aljazeera, 31 May 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(24) Moshiri, N., ‘Al-Shabaab losing ground in Somalia’, Aljazeera, 17 July 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(26) ‘Kenyan Muslim groups to protect churches’, BBC News, 4 July 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(29) Moshiri, N., ‘Al-Shabaab losing ground in Somalia’, Aljazeera, 17 July 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(32) ‘AU troops seize strategic Somali town’, Aljazeera, 26 May 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(33) Warner, L., ‘Kenya’s invasion of Somalia paper’, Lesley on Africa, 22 June 2012, http://lesleyannewarner.wordpress.com .
(35) ‘The Kenyan military intervention in Somalia’, International Crisis Group Africa Report No. 184, 15 February 2012, http://www.crisisgroup.org.
(36) Haywood, E., ‘US backed Kenyan forces invade Somalia’, World Socialist Website, 26 October 2011, http://www.wsws.org.
(37) Moshiri, N., ‘Al-Shabaab losing ground in Somalia’, Aljazeera, 17 July 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(38) ‘The Kenyan military intervention in Somalia’, International Crisis Group Africa Report No. 184, 15 February 2012, http://www.crisisgroup.org.