October 16, 2011
Somalis, Kenyans Accept Risks of Southern Offensive
On Saturday night a team “comprising Kenya Army and Rapid Deployment Unit officers” left Kenya’s border in the direction of Dhobley, Somalia. Located a mile across the border, Dhobley has experienced intermittent fighting under the control of the Raskamboni movement, a Kenyan-backed militia combating al-Shabaab’s territorial influence. Two weeks ago al-Shabaab attacked from three sides, sparking a battle outside the town and sending residents fleeing. Dhobley’s melee degenerated to hand-to-hand fighting before al-Shabaab was repulsed by government and Raskamboni forces.
The group’s leader, Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, has been itching to launch a counter-attack to Kismayo, and now his request appears to have been granted. After discussing a joint-military operation with officials from Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the Kenyan team returned to their side of the border several hours later. Wasting no time, warplanes began bombing al-Shabaab positions late Saturday night. Several hundred soldiers in armored trucks and tanks crossed into Somalia on Sunday, along with assault helicopters, and reinforcements are gathering at the border.
"We have crossed into Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabab, which is responsible for the kidnappings and attacks on our country," Kenyan spokesman Alfred Matua said.
Although the recent kidnappings of aid workers is justifying the current operation - Minister of Internal Security George Saitoti argued, "For the first time our country is threatened with the most serious level of terrorism” - Nairobi has been inching towards an assault for months. Having accepted a high number of refugees fleeing Somalia’s famine and al-Shabaab’s rule, Kenya’s only path to long-term stability is reversing the border’s unsustainable environment. The immediate question is how much weight Kenyan soldiers can lift.
“They’re going all the way to Kismayo,” according to one Kenyan security official, referring to al-Shabaab’s port roughly 100 miles inland. “We’re going to clear the Shabab out.”
Another official added, "They [the army] have been instructed to get ready for the assignment, which will mainly include pushing the Shabab rebels far inside Somalia, away from the common border.”
Over the last year Kenyan forces have actively coordinated with the TFG to undermine al-Shabaab’s hold on the south. Back in early April, former Somali officials gathered in Nairobi to declare the creation of a new autonomous region in southern Somalia. The formation of Azania, a piece of the wider Jubaland, was loosely coordinated with the TFG in order to provide a buffer zone along the Somali-Kenyan border. However the arrangement also served to encroach upon al-Shabaab territory, not simply contain the group, and Madobe’s militia gathered his strength under this umbrella.
"They (Kenya) help with many things including guns and bullets,” said Major Abdikadir Bashir, a Raskamboni intelligence officer. “Without that support, how could we have beaten them?”
Now Madobe’s militia and TFG soldiers are advancing under Kenyan air-strikes. al-Shabaab positions in Qoqani and Afmadow, two towns roughly 50 and 70 miles into Somalia, were bombarded and occupied by TFG and Raskamboni forces, providing a staging ground into Kismayo, 60 miles to the south. Madobe’s faction of the Raskamboni Bridage was evicted from the port in 2009 by al-Shabaab, with the help of the Brigade’s other half. Abdinasir Sayrar, a spokesperson for Madobe’s faction, told Shabelle Radio that their forces in Qoqani were headed “directly for Kismayo.”
Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki, the opposing Raskamboni commander, has already welcomed Kenyan troops by vowing to inflict pain.
The time-frame and scope of Nairobi’s mission currently remains unclear, but the operation is the result of a coordinated buildup, not a spontaneous decision to defend Kenya’s border and its citizens. This level of planning suggests an extended operation rather than a blitzkrieg; while foreign incursions into Somalia are known to spin out of control, Nairobi had time to weigh the risks and rewards of such an operation. Both governments believe that al-Shabaab is vulnerable in the south, and that now is the moment to strike. A movement south could be a precursor for separate assaults to the west and north.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman told reporters, "The enemy is lost and we will continue pursuing them.”
Fears of an imperialist narrative are also evident; Francis Kimemia, permanent secretary at Kenya’s Ministry of Internal Security, told the private-owned Citizen Television that, “it's important to indicate we are not at war with the government of Somalia, or with the people of Somalia.” The TFG is masking Kenya’s level of involvement for varying reasons, either to absorb most of the credit or to minimize local fears of an occupation (or both). Several officials denied that Kenyan troops entered the country, contrary to Kenyan statements and local eye witnesses, but lauded assistance to TFG units. One commander claimed that reports of Kenyan activity are designed to confuse al-Shabaab.
“Kenya can never invade Somalia,” Osman said, “but we are working together for security issues and to defeat the extremists. It’s our troops who are in our territory, it’s our troops doing the legwork; Kenya troops are at the border. Our neighbor Kenya is fully supporting us militarily and our mission is to drive al-Shabaab out of the region.”
Much of Nairobi’s risk will be determined by the choice of its reward, and thus the length of its mission. al-Shabaab stands no chance of repulsing a coordinated air-and-ground assault, so the smart move is to melt away and dodge Kenya’s assault (the group vacated Qoqani and Afmadow). Besieged areas would be re-infiltrated at a later date, jeopardizing a reentry but keeping the group’s units alive. Kenya would presumably like to clear a path into Kismayo and allow the TFG to take over, but the possibility of guerrilla warfare may demand that Kenya maintain a presence inside the country, whether on the ground or in the air.
One reason al-Shabaab withdrew from Mogadishu was to reinforce its southern territory, suggesting that it anticipated an eventual attack. A desperate fight awaits its enemies.
As dangerous as intervention is, Kenya’s strategy could flip either way depending on its actions. al-Shabaab has already raised the anti-Christian, anti-imperialist battle-cry, except Kenya isn’t despised like arch-enemy Ethiopia. Nairobi has also assisted countless Somali refugees, providing a base of goodwill to stand on, and seizing territory will open humanitarian corridors into the south. So long as Kenya avoids flagrant civilian casualties, al-Shabaab may be lucky to see a small boost in recruits. The situation is a marked improvement from Ethiopia’s last campaign, when a mass of armor launched a doomed occupation across the country. While TFG and Kenyan forces will need time to clear Somalia’s south, Nairobi has no reason to get involved in Mogadishu.
This isn’t to say that Kenya’s mission can’t go wrong - and external attack poses its own threat - but enough “laws” of war are being followed to provide a semblance of optimism in Somalia.