Despite a raucous chorus of international skepticism, Kenya’s Operation Linda Nchi (Swahili for “Protect the Nation”) maintains the potential to reach a degree of mission success - if guided by achievable strategic objectives. In its most practical state, Kenya’s mission would define Lower Juba as its area of operations and single out the control of Kismayo as the final territorial objective. Current reinforcements from the African Union (AU) would land in Mogadishu, while a future deployment teams with Kenyan forces to restore order in Kismayo and Lower Juba.
This contained mission would form only a piece of the long-term strategy for uprooting al-Shabaab; Lower Juba represents roughly 1/5th of the group’s territory. However an insurgency cannot be removed in haste, and eliminating al-Shabaab’s presence and ideology remains a multi-year challenge. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its neighbors would be wise to conduct their counterinsurgency with patience. Securing Lower Juba by August 2012, when the TFG’s mandate is set to expire amid elections, evolves within a national strategy and deprives al-Shabaab of a revenue/military source.
By achieving reasonable goals, the TFG and AU can impress the international community and secure new funds to pursue their campaign.
Unfortunately Kenya’s mission is heading further off road as its mission expands beyond Lower Juba. The initial concept of replacing al-Shabaab’s authority in Kismayo with a Kenyan proxy, the Azania council (and its Ras Kamboni and youth militias), unnerved Somali President Sharif Ahmed and triggered public divisions with Nairobi. This plan has been scrapped until further notice, adding to the unease over Kenya’s exit strategy.
After an air-strike sparked civilian collateral in Jilib (located some 50 miles north of Kismayo), military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir issued an air-raid warning to the residents of seven other towns. His Twitter alert expanded Kenya’s area of operations across Jubbaland, which is slightly larger than Belgium, and into Somalia’s midsection.
Now Operation Linda Nchi is starting to drag beyond the normal friction of war, mud and al-Shabaab’s asymmetric defense. Kenyan troops continue their month-long preparation for a large-scale battle at Afmadow, a strategic town situated near the Lagh Dera river, but have yet to move in force. The port city of Kismayo remains a distant objective. More Kenyans are reinforcing their brothers in the field - another 400 soldiers (plus helicopters) recently passed through the Kenyan bordertown of Liboi - to push their numbers well above the commonly reported 2,000. Relying on air power to clear the way ahead of ground troops is textbook military science, but the persistent threat of bombardment is unnerving Somalis hundreds of miles from Lower Juba.
At Kenya’s political level, parliamentarians and activists accuse the government of violating the constitution by bypassing approval of the operation. Although Operation Linda Nchi enjoys widespread support amongst Kenyans, many doubts exist over their government’s ability to finance it.
Worse still, the AU is experiencing a shortage of funds and won’t be able to deploy fresh troops until the beginning of 2012, at the earliest. While rushing a counterinsurgency should be discouraged, speed and mobility are vital to success on the battlefield and in political meeting rooms. Mogadishu residents and Kenyan troops are in equal need of AU reinforcements - they don’t have months to wait - and Nairobi’s urgency is visibly evident in its international appeals. The bleed-over between AQAP and al-Shabaab appears credible (if unverified), but Kenya is using Yemen to scare up Western assistance in Somalia.
The Los Angeles Times reports, “Despite the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. drones and other surveillance aircraft are in short supply. Moreover, the officials cautioned, the intelligence reports alone may not enable Kenya's military to achieve even its limited objectives.”
Given the ongoing confusion between Nairobi and Western donors, the international community appears leery of funding a national offensive and corresponding naval blockade from Kismayo to Mogadishu. They sense Operation Linda Nchi’s ballooning objectives and presumably flashback to Operation Gothic Serpent, a “three-week” mission that ended six weeks later with two downed Blackhawks. Although Western states, particularly the U.S. and France, appear to be playing a greater military role than acknowledged, extensive divisions exist within a potential multi-lateral force. A newly released WikiLeaks cable casts additional uncertainty over U.S.-Kenyan cooperation.
“According to a cable dated Feb. 2, 2010, Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, provided Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula with a variety of reasons that the U.S. believed a proposed Kenyan incursion could backfire during a Jan. 30, 2010, meeting in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.”
One U.S. official claimed, “We have not declared war on Al Shabaab.”
The combination of expanding mission objectives and a delay in international support has driven Kenyan officials to potentially counterproductive allies. On Monday Prime Minister Raila Oginda erroneously publicized military relations with Israel, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of a “Christian-Jewish” coalition. al-Shabaab responded with an immediate call for global jihadists, only for another of the coalition’s pillars to enter Somalia’s rumor cycle. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one TFG official said that Ethiopian troops have already begun to move into Somalia.
While these forces protect and breach the border on a regular basis, a whole new front involving “thousands of troops” is now being proposed. President Ahmed reportedly opposes the idea in principle, but believes “he has no choice” with the rest of his modest forces committed to Mogadishu and the south.
“The idea is to relieve pressure on Amisom,” the official said of the AU’s mission. “We’re looking at how neighboring countries can assist, and we are quite aware of the sensitive aspects.”
The mere rumor of another Ethiopian intervention - stacked onto Israel’s red flag - suggests the opposite. While the AU requires more troops to increase Mogadishu’s stability, a perquisite to organizing a national offensive, sending Ethiopians is only practical if their government is willing to spend its own money. No shortage of AU reinforcements exists - the pressing dilemma is a shortage of Western funds. However Ethiopia doesn’t intend to send its troops to Mogadishu, but into al-Shabaab’s Bay stronghold of Baidoa (over 100 miles from the Ethiopian border).
“Ethiopia is supposed to build (military) capacity in Somalia,” says Chirchir. “That could apply to cross-border operations.”
This arrangement has the potential to add a stabilizing effect to Somalia - or go horribly wrong. An Ethiopian flank was posited in our initial reaction to Operation Linda Nchi, but as a blocking maneuver more than full-blow offensive. Beginning without the stigma of past aggressors, Kenya is now openly aligned with the unpopular trifecta of America, Israel and Ethiopia. The political and psychological drawbacks of this alliance could negate and possibly outweigh its military advantages, replaying Ethiopia’s failed invasion from 2006-2009.
Nairobi must learn from America and Ethiopia’s past errors - not duplicate them - in order to withdraw with its forces and credibility intact.