Over three months have elapsed since Nairobi made the executive decision to launch Operation Linda Nchi (Swahili for Protect the Nation). Depending on the individual - a Kenyan commander, Somali official or civilian, al-Shabaab gunman or Western observer - Kenya’s military campaign is trending towards victory or quagmire. Reality likely falls in between two extremes, but foreign capitals are entering a slippery phase of their politico-military campaign.
Last month Colonel Cyrus Oguna asserted that “Al Shabaab is halfway in the pit.” Whether Kenyan, Ethiopian and African Union (AU) troops can complete their mission may be determined over the next three months.
Nairobi’s confidence in reaching Somalia’s main southern port begat heightened expectations at the start of Linda Nchi, and the combination of Kenya’s swift incursion and al-Shabaab’s tactical withdrawal gave rise to the possibility of reaching Kismayo in the near future. However the majority of Kenyan troops haven’t advanced more than 50 miles during a month-long rainy reason, remaining at their mud-locked positions around Bur Gaavo and Afmadow. Bur Gaavo’s delta lies on Somalia’s coast, roughly 40 miles from Kenya’s border and 60 miles south of Kismayo, while Kenyan commanders predicted they would take Afmadow last month.
The bulk of Kenya’s ground forces remain tens of miles away from Kismayo, one of al-Shabaab’s main strongholds and a key military-economic gateway. They have yet to create the buffer zone envisioned by Nairobi; grenade, mine and IED attacks continue to disrupt life across Kenya’s border. Villages behind Afmadow, such as Tabda and Badhaadhe, are still being fortified as assault preparations are made on the strategic town. Even Defense Minister Yusuf Haji added to Somalia’s confusion in early December, telling reporters, "I don't know where this objective came from. We have never stated at any time that Kenya was going to Kismayo.”
"All we said is that we were pushing Shebab away from our boundary and securing our border, and we will go as far as we will go.”
Kenyan commanders have since clarified that their units are, in fact, still headed for Kismayo. They insist that Haji simply meant that their troops won’t occupy the port, only secure and transfer authority to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Major Rashid Seif explained from Bur Gaavo, "Our conduct of operation here is basically in conformity with the other troops that are in other sectors, the northern sector and the central sector. So basically the ultimate objective is the capture of Kismayo, so it is building up to that.”
Although Nairobi’s timeline isn’t publicly available, a sensible prediction would circle August 2012 as Kenya’s target date to exit southern Somalia. The TFG’s UN mandate is finally set to expire after several delays, and involved foreign powers are demanding presidential and parliamentary elections before the UN’s mandate dissolves. As a result, involved members of the African Union (AU) have lobbied to increase AMISOM’s force ceiling from 12,000 to 15,000-20,000). Nairobi presumably feels the same rush and attempted to synchronize its military campaign with 2012’s political roadmap.
Kenya’s operation functions as one part of the TFG, African Union (AU) and Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) national strategy, with AU reinforcements envisioned in Mogadishu and Kismayo. As Kenya clears al-Shabaab from the south and the TFG expands its presence out of the capital, Ethiopia would exert its influence along al-Shabaab’s western flank. This strategy theoretically covers Somalia proper without stretching any single force over the country - and potentially breaking it. Ethiopian troops cross the border on a regular basis in their pursuit of al-Shabaab and other armed elements, but upwards of 1,000 troops are now operating inside Somalia.
Ethiopian forces recently took control of Beledweyne, a strategic city located over 400 miles from Kismayo, and are moving into al-Shabaab’s Bay stronghold.
Yet the strategic obstacle for Kenya, Ethiopia and the TFG remains as is: opening up a wide front. Even a piece of Somalia is hard to clear, hold and restore TFG authority to. Ethiopian troops recently cleared Baidoa, one of al-Shabaab’s main strongholds in Somalia’s central Bay district, and could move on Garbahaarey and Baardheere (Gedo’s largest cities) as well. While striking into Baidoa and Baardheere could send al-Shabaab scrambling across its territory, the long-term battle for Bay, Hiiraan and Gedo will entail harder fighting than Kenya’s intervention into Lower Juba.
Restoring TFG authority is also the primary goal of any national offensive, and seizing more territory than the TFG’s reach can handle will create extensive friction on the ground. Ethiopia has “dismantled” al-Shabaab before, only for the group to re-inflate itself and fill the ensuing security vacuum.
Ethiopia’s wild-card image poses a secondary concern in a mission that depends on positive perceptions. According to various sources (including American), Ethiopian troops have been thrown into the battlefield because African leaders consider to be more proficient than their Kenyan counterparts. The good news is that local Ethiopian approval is being reported at higher levels than in the past. In accordance with practical sentiments towards America and Kenya, some Somalis are willing to stomach any foreign intervention in order to escape al-Shabaab’s rule. However many accounts note the long-standing animosity between neighbors, and Ethiopian support could flip overnight in the event of mass collateral damage.
While al-Shabaab is suffering casualties and facing enemies on all sides, the insurgency doesn’t appear to be panicking at the level described by African officials. Its commanders rejected local reports of a name-change - to Imaarah Islamiya (Islamic Authority) - and avoided the initial blitzkrieg that could have knocked al-Shabaab on the permanent defensive. Nor is the war “almost half lost,” in the words of Colonel Oguna. Kenya’s army spokesman argues that al-Shabaab is “now facing serious challenges as far as command and control is concerned and logistical support,” but these terms are more applicable in conventional warfare.
Ultimately, the roots of Somalia’s political friction must be destroyed in order to permanently defeat al-Shabaab. Military victory could recede into a political collapse, facilitating al-Shabaab’s restructuring.
In a related development, Western and African capitals maintain extensive concerns over the TFG’s ability to implement the UN’s roadmap. Modified in June under heavy pressure from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the Kampala Accord extended the TFG’s mandate for one final year by sacrificing Prime Minister Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed. This outcome allowed President Sharif Ahmed and Parliamentary Speaker Sharif Hassan Aden to shelve their rivalry (each has tried to force the other out of power) until November, when Somalia’s parliament was ordered to reach a vote on Kampala’s revisions.
Except the vote never occurred and Hassan now finds himself mired in a no-confidence vote. He suspects that President Ahmed is pulling the political strings.
Given that any AU mission cannot succeed in the long-term without a stable Somali government, Ahmed and Aden’s unresolved feud is pulsing throughout Somalia’s neighbors and international financiers. Nairobi’s strategy explicitly outlined the following sequence: “enter southern Somalia, drive away Al-Shabaab, create a buffer zone to allow the fledgling Transitional Federal Government to take control and increase its capacity to retain it.” Although military gains can be secured independently from Somalia’s political factors, combining the two spheres represents the primary objective of counterinsurgency.
Lindsay Kiptiness, Kenya's Foreign Affairs spokesman, cautioned, “A new round of political conflict would affect the transitional process eight months away.”
Fundamental divisions within the TFG’s structure pose a grave threat to the AU’s mission. Destabilization inside Mogadishu’s political core affects the country as a whole, thus impacting Kenya and Ethiopia’s semi-independent operations. Operation Linda Nchi may have been conceived two+ years ago, but Nairobi launched its military campaign within AMISOM’s national campaign. This strategy builds on AMISOM’s gains in Mogadishu by allocating Kenyan and Ethiopian forces to Somalia’s south and west, creating a patchwork grid across the entire country. Additional AU and TFG troops will then deploy to Kismayo and central Somalia.
"As more territory is liberated,” predicts UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “the federal government must strengthen its outreach to the local population and form new regional entities in line with the Transitional Federal Charter. On the military front, we must not exclude the incorporation of new forces and the expansion of Amisom.”
These troops have no chance of landing until the TFG’s political crisis is untangled and permanently settled. A lack of confidence in the TFG impacts donations to the UN and AU, in turn delaying deployment of AU forces and over-stressing Somalia’s nascent security forces. In January the UN and AU urged “the leadership of the Transitional Federal Institutions, parliamentarians and to all stakeholders [to]… avoid any statement or action that could exacerbate the already tense situation and further aggravate the crisis.” A fist-fight later broke out over Hassan’s unresolved status.
al-Shabaab can only stall Operation Linda Nchi and the AU’s coordinated assault, but the TFG can stop Kenyan and Ethiopian armor in its tracks.