The smoke and dust cloud has, for the moment, cleared around Jilib, Somalia. Left in the crater of Kenya’s air-strike are new questions and concerns over Operation Linda Nchi’s territorial scope, military resources and time-line. Kenyan officials are trying to maintain control of Somalia’s information sphere through briefings and social media, and Major Emmanuel Chirchir gave a plausible explanation to Monday’s air raid on an IDP camp.
“The incident at the IDP camp developed following enemy actions in the area,” he says. “Upon the aerial attack, an Al-Shabaab driver drove off a technical battle wagon mounted with an anti-aircraft gun towards the IDP camp. The wagon was on fire and laden with explosives. It exploded at the camp, causing the reported deaths and injuries.”
This explanation won’t satisfy every local resident though. War-weary Somalis are used to all sides misfiring and Kenya doesn’t enjoy a wide margin of error. Witnesses claim that at least one air-strike hit near the IDP camp, and an investigation must follow in accordance with Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s promise. Odinga chose the correct rhetoric to defend Operation Linda Nchi, telling reporters, "If there is any death that has occurred as a result of the military operation, it will be investigated thoroughly. It is not our intention to kill innocent civilians.”
A conclusive, neutral investigation now influences Kenya’s advancing columns in the south. Nairobi is leaning on air-strikes to soften al-Shabaab’s targets and counter the slow ground conditions, and local confidence cannot be lost in the middle of these forces. Fear has spiked now that Chirchi advised the populations of nine towns (on Twitter) to take cover and distance themselves from al-Shabaab: Baidoa, Baardheere, Dinsor, Afgoye, Buale, Baraawe, Jilib, Kismayo and Afmadow.
"We're not attacking towns - I want to make that clear - we're attacking al-Shabab camps - all we're saying is that people in Somalia, [should] avoid being close to al-Shabab camps," he told the BBC's Focus on Africa.
Kenyan officials and commanders are visibly aware that civilian casualties could sabotage their own mission. While Operation Linda Nchi’s media campaign has been criticized locally for a lack of government updates and reporters in the field, Kenyan and Somali officials are actively engaging the battlefield’s information sphere. They understand the impact of military and propaganda damage, but they must stay hyper-vigilant against the reality that insurgencies can rapidly destabilize.
Some of Jilib’s damage cannot be repaired and the dead cannot be revived. Even if local medical officials confirm Nairobi's version of the attack, lingering doubts may persist over the practicality of Kenya’s operation. The air raid triggered a protest down Jilib’s main streets and less-supportive Somalis could be thinking that Nairobi bit off more than it can chew. COIN theory assumes that the insurgent and government populations are the minorities, and aims for the fence-sitters in the hopes of affecting all segments of the population. Winning or losing the undecided majority is vital to Kenya’s operation.
"Kenya has no imperialistic intention of staying longer in Somalia or annexing any part of Somalia,” said Odinga. “We want to see a united, liberated strong Somalia to join the East African Community.”
Nonetheless, suspicions that Kenya seeks a buffer zone between its border refuse to die out; Nairobi’s emphasis on the issue serves as evidence. Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali spent the last two days hashing out southern Somalia’s authority with Kenyan officials, patching up the hole caused by President Sharif Ahmed’s half-rejection of Operation Linda Nchi. Ahmed reportedly fears that Kenyan troops will leave Jubbaland under a proxy administration instead of the TFG’s authority. Nairobi assured Abdiweli that his government has no reason to fear this scenario, but officials do interchange Jubbaland with Somalia.
"Our joint forces have liberated a large portion of Jubaland are now assisting the civilian population to set up local administrative units,” said Odinga. “The towns that have been captured are now being put under civilian administration.”
The new towns under air-raid warning tell a story of their own. In line with Sharif’s suspicions, the initial target zone of Lower Jubba is tangibly ballooning up the Jubba River. Anything less than total cooperation between Sharif and Nairobi will destabilize the ground campaign. Of potentially greater significance, Kenya’s troop and time demands will rise in proportion to the increase in territory. Moving the front-line to Baraawe, a port over 100 miles north of Kismayo, and up the Jubba River to Buale and Baardheere will more than double the size of Lower Jubba’s area. Expanding operations to Baidoa, al-Shabaab’s primary stronghold in the south, would triple the area.
Afgoye is located roughly 20 miles outside of Mogadishu - over 300 miles north of Kismayo.
This massive increase in territory will necessitate more Kenyan resources. Feasible rumors have pegged its current force at 2,500 (three battalions of 800 men, plus police units) and Kenyan officials recently appealed to NATO and other international powers. The level of foreign assistance has remained a mystery throughout Operation Linda Nchi due to Western sensitivities, but a naval force around Kismayo is the natural starting point. Air surveillance could eventually give way to strikes - if they haven’t already. Whatever the plan, Odinga and Abdiweli briefed representatives of the U.S., Canada, EU, Turkey, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt.
al-Shabaab will also turn to outside support in order to repel a larger assault than anticipated. Kenyan military officials claim to possess reliable information that two Eritrean planes delivered a shipment of arms to Baidoa.
Beyond spreading its own resources too thin, Kenya risks conflating its operation by increasing the odds of error. Isolated air operations aren’t suitable for counterinsurgency, forcing Kenyan troops to follow their warplanes into Baardheere and Baidoa (TFG troops cannot fight independently). Otherwise air-strikes will result in dead al-Shabaab, civilian collateral and no gained territory. Only Afgoye can be realistically assaulted by AU forces in the immediate future, leaving the other cities to soak up Kenyan troops. Lower Juba’s relatively small area provided a realistic containment zone, whereas controlling all of Jubbaland could require years of operations.
That Somalia’s government and neighbors have decided to eliminate al-Shabaab throughout its territory is both noble and potentially reckless; August 2012’s election deadline will come too soon to liberate southern Somalia. Ethiopia could be summoned directly into the fight and ultimately poison Kenya’s credibility.
Kenyan officials must deeply consider whether their objectives match their time-line. If deployed according to COIN principles, Operation Linda Nchi could produce results within the Lower Juba region and along Kenya’s border. Expanding the target area to Jubbaland and beyond necessitates full cooperation with Mogadishu and the African Union (AU), or else the mission stands a high chance of collapsing under its own weight. As Nairobi attempts to accumulate enough good to cancel out the bad, it must concentrate on preventing the ugly from occurring.