October 29, 2011

Kenya Battles al-Shabaab, Foreign Perceptions

Despite Somalia’s natural fog of war and the initial ambiguity of Operation Linda Nchi, Kenya’s intervention into its neighbor unfolded on a set of predetermined conditions. The grand scheme remains unchanged nearly three weeks into the mission: march to Kismayo and hold the Lower Juba region until the African Union (AU) can deploy reinforcements. Yet the many gears in between remain obscured, and Nairobi is starting to feel the turbulence that often follows the smooth opening of a counterinsurgency.

al-Shabaab goes in motion

Earlier this week we predicted that Kenyan troops would be lucky to reach Kismayo in 14 days. Operation Linda Nchi would begin to take shape around Afmadow, where Kenyan commanders were predicting a battle within days. This battle has yet to pass and further delays will impact the mission, setting Nairobi on a longer time-line that it presumably envisioned. War can stall indefinitely or leap ahead at any moment, but Kenyan troops won’t reach Kismayo until sometime in November. Bringing the port city under control - if it can be controlled - requires a time-line into 2012. The mandate of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is set to expire in August.

Putting these obstacles aside, Operation Linda Nchi is steadily progressing and will eventually find itself face to face with al-Shabaab units. Kenyan troops advancing along the Indian Ocean have captured Buur Gaabo and approached Anole, some 70 miles south of Kismayo. The two sides exchanged hostilities, with Kenyan warplanes bombing a training camp and al-Shabaab (strength estimated at 45) ambushing Kenyan troops. al-Shabaab reportedly failed to inflict any casualties, but harassing attacks are becoming more frequent. al-Shabaab fighters ambushed Kenyan forces outside Dhobley, the border town used as Nairobi’s launch pad, and near Tabda, a small village on the road to Bilis Qooqaani.

As al-Shabaab reportedly melted away from towns such as Bilis Qooqaani, Kaambooni and Buur Gaabo, the group is clearly prepared to face Kenyan troops and whatever nation is providing air support. Kenyan casualty figures of 200+ sound inflated, but al-Shabaab could be losing dozens of fighters in the air assault. Its developing counter-offensive follows an AP report documenting Burundi’s losses during the recent battle in Mogadishu (along with new attacks in the capital). Last week al-Shabaab displayed between 50 and 60 bodies dressed in military fatigues, claiming they were Burundi soldiers killed in the northern Deynille district. AU commanders and spokesmen denied their identities while admitting to light casualties, arguing that al-Shabaab had dressed up its own KIA.

The defense sounded plausible given al-Shabaab’s propaganda machine, but its information isn’t to be disbelieved entirely.

Local journalists said that foreigners were mixed in with Somalis, with one counting at least 19 bodies that “were clearly foreign and were wearing AU uniforms and body armor.” The AU says 10 soldiers were killed in the battle for Deynille and two remain missing, but one relative tells a different story. A disturbed Leonard Nininahazwe says his brother turned up on a Burundi casualty list that included 50 names; other relatives are equally unhappy with the government’s silent policy.

One Somali official told the AP that 30-50 Burundi soldiers were killed in a single day.

Another ill omen for Nairobi: al-Shabaab’s more moderate leader, Sheikh Mukhtar “Abu Mansoor” Robow, has issued an extreme attack on Kenya’s internal cities. Any lingering hope of splitting its southern leadership away from the northern and transnational elements dries up with Robow, al-Shabaab’s head in the south. The commander derided Kenya’s internal grenade attacks as weak and called for intensified attacks by Somalis inside the country. As for southern Somalia, “Kenya’s planes are bombing us, and their tanks are inside Somalia. Let’s fight collectively and defeat them as we defeated the Christian countries who invaded us before.”

Rumors from within Nairobi have inflated its military force to 6,000 troops - more disinformation with a kernel of truth. The estimated 1,600 troops currently involved in Operation Linda Nchi have likely been reinforced against al-Shabaab’s asymmetric defense.

Confusion spreads amongst regional actors

The first real shock to Nairobi’s operation occurred not on the military battlefield, but on the political field that comes to dominate asymmetric warfare. A basic measuring unit of COIN is the depth of cooperation between regional actors; since most insurgencies are transnational, counterinsurgents reduce the odds of success by working in isolation. One initial positive of Kenya’s operation was its apparent coordination with the TFG. 10 days into Operation Linda Nchi, Somali President Ahmed Sharif sent a tremor to Nairobi by rejecting its ground incursion.

“The government will not break its decision on this issue,” he told reporters in Mogadishu. “We have asked Kenya to assist the Somalia government in training and supporting the Somali army but not to intervene in Somalia.”

His statements unnerved Kenyan officials who were counting on the TFG’s public legitimization to avoid widespread resistance. Equally distracting, Somalis are beginning to polarize on the basis of their location, with southern residents more open to Kenya’s operation. The risks of losing local confidence are extreme; Somalis might choose Nairobi over the TFG, destabilizing the region’s political authority, or abstain from helping Kenyans on the grounds that they could withdraw. The proxy Ras Kamboni Movement and Sufi militia Ahlu Sunna, two key pieces to the southern campaign, have issued complaints as well.

Internal Security minister George Saitoti recently wrote to the Somali government demanding an explanation on his Sharif’s remarks: “In the light of this the Kenya Government is seeking clarification of the Somali government’s position as it is essential to have a unified approach in dealing with the destabilization of Somalia by Al Shabaab and its threats to peace and security to Kenya and the region.”

Realizing these dangers, both Nairobi and Mogadishu have attempted to minimize Sharif’s statements in the days since. After issuing similar comments - “We do not have an agreement with Kenya” - Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali reversed direction by promising, “My government supports any self defense action Kenya takes against al Shabaab.” Unfortunately some of the damage cannot be repaired. Beyond the south’s complex social environment, Sharif himself remains suspicious of Kenya’s long-term policy to create a buffer zone inside Somalia.

He’s also locked in a personal rivalry.

For several years Kenya has been involved training Somali army recruits and local militias operating along the border. Many of these programs are loosely sanctioned by the TFG, including the training of 2,500 young recruits (many pulled from the Kismayo area). Sharif eventually grew suspicious of these programs, and requested that their oversight be transferred from former Defense Minister Mohamed Abdi Mohamed (Gandhi) to Abdullah Boss. The request wasn’t merely based on the secession of power, but on Sharif’s personal distrust of Mohamed, who he feared was setting up Kenya’s buffer zone in Jubaland (southern Somalia).

Suspecting Mohamed, the president of Jubaland’s new autonomous region, of creating an autonomous state between Kenya and the Juba River, Sharif worried that Kenya’s proxy militias would help Mohamed solidify control of Azania. Breaking away Jubaland would leave Somalia in four pieces: Somalia proper, Somaliland, Puntland and Azania (or Jubaland).

“There are people who are unhappy of the training that you have provided for our forces and the regional administration and wish to deny this region and Somalia any peace and stability,” the president wrote in a memo to Nairobi. “We wish to correct this situation administratively by bringing the military force under the department of Defense and the regional administration under the ministry of interior.”

That Kenya’s training programs are a source of tension impacts Somalia’s tactical and strategic levels, given that the TFG and U.S. highlight these programs as evidence of progress. Prime Minister Abdiweli told reporters that the government “supports Kenya’s operation inside Somalia because they support, train and provide other military support to our troops.” Meanwhile distrust between Sharif and Mohamed could obstruct a healthier relationship from developing with Nairobi. Operation Linda Nchi’s climb will steepen if Sharif believes that Kenya’s proxies are after more than Somalia’s stability.

As a final concern several U.S. drone strikes have been reported near Kismayo and Afmadow. Although the Obama administration admitted to flying surveillance drones from Ethiopia’s air field, officials staunchly deny involvement in Kenya’s air support. Kenyan officials speak of nameless foreign powers and Western media is reporting America’s drones to be armed. Press TV consistently reports unconfirmed strikes, with a success rate somewhere between 0 and 100%.

AU/IGAD strategy behind fog of war

The main source of optimism in Somalia continues to be a regional approach; unilateral action would be dead before it began. Kenya joins a wider campaign already planned and put into motion by AU and TFG commanders (under IGAD’s political oversight), and an African collective increases the odds of mission success. We outlined the AU’s grand strategy during Somalia's last briefing: AMISOM intends to expand Mogadishu’s security bubble as Ethiopia blocks from the west and Kenya moves into the south. Instead of any single power occupying the country, regional powers engage their local sphere of influence to reduce logistics and other military demands. Nairobi’s long-term objective aims to clear Kismayo for an AU battalion and TFG troops to land.

Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua, "Kenya has no plans or intentions to stay in Somalia an hour beyond necessary. Once our objective is met as per the framework of AU and IGAD, Kenyan troops will withdraw and leave the security operations to AU troops and TFG troops."

This hour, though, will drag into 2012. Somalia’s national campaign and its relation to the August 2012 deadline is central to Operation Linda Nchi, and anyone expecting a shorter mission based on tourism factors should reconsider. Kenyan and proxy forces might secure Lower Juba before then, but the hold phase of COIN will exceed the clear phase. Kenyan officials should speak frankly in regards to the mission’s parameters, as domestic and foreign populaces don’t like to be undersold on a military campaign. The potential for an extended operation also necessitates a smooth channel between the Kenyan and Somali governments; political divisions will boost al-Shabaab’s current force beyond its inherent threat.

Julius Karangi, Kenya’s Chief of Defense Forces General, directly addressed the issue of Jubaland on Saturday, saying his troops had no intention of staying longer than necessary. President Mwai Kibaki added that Kenyan troops intend to clear space for a local TFG administration, contrary to reports of Azania’s council assuming control. Whether his officials can placate Sharif, who fears Kenya’s proxies rather than its military, remains to be seen.

Kenya is now facing the full matrix of counterinsurgency. Engaging Somalia’s network across the military and non-military spectrum offers the only stable exit.

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