Barring a large-scale military feint, Kenya’s “Operation Linda Nchi” (Defend Our Country) appears headed for an extended grind in southern Somalia. Upwards of 800 troops are taking part in the operation, according to Kenyan sources, and Defense Minister Yusuf Haji told a Parliamentary Committee that the country was “in for the long haul.” With the border town of Dhobley now under TFG control thanks to Kenya’s air force and armor, the bulk of Nairobi’s force has moved 50 miles into Qoqani, the next major town inside Somalia.
One resident, Saleban Mohamed, said that he “saw around 32 trucks and tanks, with hundreds of troops.” Another witness, Abdulahi Sayid Adam, added that these soldiers “are heavily armed and they have started digging trenches near Qoqani.”
Despite Nairobi’s public emphasis on a protracted campaign - managing expectations is critical to the offensive - its mission in southern Somalia remains unclear. How long does Nairobi plan to deploy, for weeks or months? Is Kenya’s air force clearing a path for TFG troops and their proxy militias, the Raskamboni movement and Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a, backed by Kenyan armor? Or will Kenyan soldiers take the lead in offensive and defensive operations? Understandably unconcerned with military analysts, Nairobi has intentionally obscured its intentions to keep al-Shabaab off guard.
Waiting is the only option for non-participants.
However Kenya’s troop movements suggest that they will assume combat significance. Currently drawing their front at Qoqani, Kenyan and Raskamboni forces are already moving towards Afmadow, another 15 miles to the east. Abdinasir Serar, a senior commander in the militia, told Reuters (over 12 hours ago) that his forces were seven miles Afmadow, “which we are waiting to capture in the coming hours.” From here the combined force plans to launch an offensive into Kismayo, Somalia’s second-largest port and one of al-Shabaab’s windows to the outside world.
While al-Shabaab is helpless to stop a mechanized offensive, the group appears to have drawn its own battle-line above Kismayo. According to local residents al-Shabaab seized dozens of trucks in the central Afgoye district, roughly 15 miles outside of Mogadishu and over 200 miles north of Kismayo. The column was seen heading south. Meanwhile Kismayo residents claim that the city is relatively empty after most of al-Shabaab’s garrison was spotted on the road to Afmadow. Although the group abandoned its local base under Kenyan air-strikes and the Raskamboni soon claimed control, Afmadow town elder Abdi Gaboobe said militants were entrenching themselves around the town.
Dozens to “hundreds” of fighters were seen hiding in brush surrounding the town.
The massing of resources by both sides is generating fears of a large-scale battle. al-Shabaab would be foolish to fight conventionally after ceding territory in Mogadishu, and allocating its southern resources to a single point will leave Kismayo vulnerable to attack. Afmadow serves as al-Shabaab’s regional command but Kenyan forces and their proxies could move into Kismayo first, then attack Afmadow from the west and south. The force could also divide and simultaneously attack Kismayo and Afmadow; although a concentrated assault may fail against an asymmetric opponent, al-Shabaab may be overloaded by a pincer maneuver.
al-Shabaab’s one advantage is that Kenyan and TFG forces must hold the cities its occupies, which could require more resources than presently available. Its job, then, is to make Kenya’s stay in Somalia as unpleasant as possible. Fade away and Kenyan troops might be encouraged to extend its mission. al-Shabaab shifted its forces from Mogadishu to prevent a southern offensive, placing a higher value on its current territory. The group must increase Kenya’s time-line without resorting to passive resistance - it must inflict as many casualties as possible and hold its defenses for as long as possible.
“We say to Kenya: Did you consider the consequences of the invasion?” asked Ali Mohamud Rage, a Shabab spokesman, at a Monday news conference in Mogadishu. Nairobi gave deep consideration to these consequences and made the decision anyway, most under the assumption that al-Shabaab is bleeding. The group’s only strategic hope of repelling Kenya’s assault is to raise the risks. One possible outcome is a strategic defense of initial resistance, followed by waves ambushes, and extensive use of IEDs on the roads connecting the three southern towns.
A stubborn defensive inside Somalia will function as a greater deterrent than attacks on Nairobi’s “skyscrapers.” Internal attacks usually trigger the patriotism necessary to sustain a foreign intervention, whereas external costs often weigh down political approval. Kenyans don’t seem to be under the impression of a quick or easy mission, but their primary fear is getting stuck in southern Somalia. al-Shabaab also denied involved in the kidnapping of aid workers inside Kenya, not the most believable claim but a seed of doubt nonetheless.
As an overall observation, Kenya’s local offensive is less likely to succeed in the absence of a regional campaign. al-Shabaab must be pressured in other areas to keep its reinforcements away from the southern front (and Mogadishu must be thoroughly swept). Otherwise rumors of Nairobi’s “short stay” in Somalia - some observers expect nothing more than a show of force - might eventually come true.