October 31, 2011

Kenyan Air Strikes Stickier Than Mud

Confronted with Somalia’s second rainy season, al-Shabaab’s nebulous defense, the seeds of regional confusion and foreign doubts, Kenyan troops find themselves on the island of war. There is no turning back to their homeland, whatever the conditions inside Somalia, and the only exit lies ahead in Kismayo. Kenya’s southern column has positioned itself in the area of Buur Gaabo, on Somalia’s southern coast, while its northern flank is settled in Bilis Qooqaani, roughly 20 miles southwest of Afmadow.

The two columns plan to meet in the port city of Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s largest urban holding, but the major battle anticipated in Afmadow has yet to unfold. Military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir explained, “The day has been calm for our troops in Somalia after two days of heavy rains. One of our commanders is prepared to move the troops forward in the battle for Afmadow.”

al-Shabaab is reportedly gathering between Bilis Qooqaani and Afmadow to slow Kenya’s advance.

Many national and foreign assessments remain pessimistic because of the above reasons, concerns over political authority in southern Somalia, or an outright belief that Kenya’s operation is illegal or unconstitutional. All concerns are valid and impact Somalia’s military battlefield, but a counter-argument can be made for Kenya’s intervention - if it stays within its mission parameters. On a positive note, Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed flew to Nairobi on Sunday with the intention of smoothing out political friction with President Sharif Ahmed. Unfortunately the first tangible sign of military drift also emerged, when Kenyan warplanes struck several targets in the town of Jilib.

Nairobi has enough complications to overcome at its current positions. After selling Kenya’s operation as a stabilizing mission, government and military officials now find themselves ensnared in controversy over 100 miles north of their armor. Local witnesses, al-Shabaab and Kenyan officials only concur on the bombing itself. al-Shabaab claims that 10 civilians were killed when air-strikes hit a bus stop, IDP camp and another area outside of Jilib, located 60 miles north of Kismayo. Kenyan officials, on the other hand, claim that no aid centers were targeted, only an al-Shabaab training camp.

"We received intelligence that a top al-Shabaab leader was to visit a camp in Jilib so we conducted an air raid," Chirchir told the BBC... "We bombed an Al-Shabaab camp, killed 10 and wounded 47. We are sure about this assessment, no collateral damage, no women, no children."

The truth is more likely recounted by the third parties: local residents and aid workers with no incentive to hide al-Shabaab’s casualties. A daylight raid (13:30 local time) increased visibility, and resident Hassan Abdiwahab told Reuters that Kenyan warplanes bombed an al-Shabaab base and an IDP camp. Town elder Mohamud Ali Harbi separately warned, "Twelve civilians, including six children, died and 52 others were injured after Kenyan jets bombarded an IDP camp in the town.” Chirchi rejected reports of civilian causalities as "al-Shabab propaganda,” but the evidence is currently stacked against Nairobi.

While al-Shabaab did suffer casualties according to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the aid group immediately released a statement informing the press of civilian collateral. Gautam Chapperjee, chief of MSF-Netherlands' Somalia mission, told the AFP, "Our staff said that around 52 people, all civilians, mostly women and children, had been wounded and that three were dead.”

This event is disturbing for a number of reasons, civilian collateral being the iceberg’s tip. Despite its own propensity to kill Somalis, al-Shabaab will obviously seize on any collateral as evidence of Kenya’s hostility. Many Somalis won’t fall for al-Shabaab’s rhetoric, but they could view Kenya’s mission as dangerous to themselves or a national violation of Somalia’s quasi-sovereignty. One branch of a worst case scenario could see a new anti-Kenya militia arise from national sentiment and opposition to al-Shabaab.

The strike on Jilib also hints at two alarming trends from a strategic viewpoint. Throughout the first two weeks of Operation Linda Nchi, Kenyan commanders generally remained focused on capturing Kismayo and the surrounding Lower Juba region. This area marked the realistic limit of Operation Linda Nchi; digging deeper into Somali territory would exponentially increase the risk of mission drift. On Sunday Somali Colonel Janwaase Mahdi said his troops had advanced near an al-Shabaab base on the outside of Afmadow, and planned to move south into the Kulbiyow and Badhaadhe districts.

“We are pushing al-Shabab back.”

Where Kenyan troops push al-Shabaab back to is the immediate question. Nairobi’s public plan envisions a flanking maneuver to Afmadow, strategically located along the Lagh Dera River, in order to quarantine Lower Juba. al-Shabaab maintains a garrison in Afmadow because its position functions as a strongpoint, freeing up the 60-70 miles to Kismayo. By seizing Afmadow, Kenyan troops (and proxies) can box al-Shabaab into Lower Juba and gradually push the group into the Indian Ocean. Yet Kenyan and Somali commanders have toyed with the idea of blockading Marka and Baraawe, two ports far up the coast, opening the possibility of a northern incursion.

President Ahmed fears this exact scenario. Distrusting Kenya’s proxy militias and the newly-established council of Azania, formed in Nairobi to administer Lower Juba, Ahmed may remain open to the military objectives of Operation Linda Nchi. His line, though, is certainly the Lagh Dera instead of the Jubba River, which runs 50 miles to the north. Whether Kenya truly intends to establish a state-sponsored buffer zone in Jubaland, the perception exists and Sharif needs his own buffer zone between the Lagh Dera and Juba rivers. Cede Middle Juba and the roads open to Gedo, Somalia’s second territory bordering Kenya. Ahmed’s primary fear of Operation Linda Nchi is this buffer zone, and he must be engaged appropriately to maintain coordination.

As for Nairobi, moving its front-line to the Jubba River would balloon its force requirements and time-line; Middle Juba is home to many populated centers (Jibil being the largest). Sharif’s relationship may be permanently compromised. If Kenyan officials haven’t planned a ground operation into the territory, they should reconsider the value of a dozen dead al-Shabaab. Even the highest valued targets may not be worth the civilian collateral during a mission's early stage.

Kenya has launched a counterinsurgency in Somalia and must aim for winning the war, not just a series of battles.

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