Nairobi's open-ended commitment in southern Somalia has added new time on its clock.
Roughly 40 days before Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is scheduled to dissolve into a UN-overseen election process, the African Union (AU) absorbed Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) into its regional mission (AMISOM) during a weekend ceremony held in Nairobi. Although informative on a tangible level, the move largely confirms pre-existing speculation over Operation Linda Nchi's resources and objectives. A total of 4,664 Kenyan troops were "re-hatted" in AU green, equivalent to the two or three battalions and support units reportedly operating in southern Somalia. Friday's ceremony, attended by AMISOM's Lt. General Andrew Gutti and the Chairman of the AU Commission for Somalia, also finalized the intermediate stage of Kenya's advance towards Kismayo, the main port and final stronghold of al-Shabaab.
Since the operation's launch in October 2011, political and military analysts have expected a merging of Kenyan forces as a precursor to establishing authority under the TFG and AU. Their plan initially appeared to call for a blocking maneuver until fresh AU troops arrived to relieve Nairobi's military demands, but Kenyan troops were likely earmarked as the reinforcements from the beginning. The same model is under construction for Ethiopia, whose commanders remain in western Somalia and await an opportunity to finish the job in Kismayo. Some 17,000 AU troops now operate in the country as part of a three-pronged attack, excluding 3,000-4,000 Ethiopian soldiers and their heavy armor.
"The integration of Kenyan forces into AMISOM will provide a boost to the effort to secure the Somali peace process," said Boubacar Diarra, the AU's ambassador, "and help create the security conditions to enable much-needed humanitarian assistance to be delivered to the needy population."
Using AMISOM's ceremony as a spring board against internal critics, Kenyan Defense Minister Yussuf Haji sketched out the final definition of Nairobi's time-line by announcing, "we cannot stop fighting in Somalia." Such expectations do exist despite the unpredictable nature of asymmetric warfare, starting with Nairobi's pledge to clear Kismayo before August. A sluggish start, attributed to the mud of Somalia's second rainy season, led some Kenyans (overall supportive of the operation) to question Linda Nchi's timing. Following Ethiopia's reentry in February, one of its ground commanders claimed that Kenyan troops missed their cue to simultaneously attack Kismayo. Now Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has settled on reaching the port by August, giving them an outside shot at clearing the city on schedule, and they plan to stay until Somalia's government tells them to leave.
Responding to al-Shabaab's latest cross-boarder attacks on Garissa, Chief of Defense Forces Julius Karangi patriotically declared, "The vocabulary of withdrawing is not in us, the war must continue and we are not going to succumb to the demands of Al Shabaab. Anyone wishing to express their opinion is free to do so, but you should know that we are not about to give up. You never, ever, succumb to blackmail. Succumbing to terrorist activities is succumbing to blackmail and it never works that way, if we must suffer to live a better tomorrow, that we must as a people."
The combination of these events indicates that Operation Linda Nchi is headed for a multi-year campaign. This outcome was always likely but never assured until July's developments, and many questions still hover over Kenya's final objective: whether its leadership will pursue an autonomous Jubaland as a buffer zone or place their faith in a nationalized Somalia. Odinga also expects U.S. and EU support when his forces reach Kismayo, telling reporters that he's asked the EU to help us with the Atalanta forces that they have there; they are reluctant."
"We have asked the Americans for assistance... we are talking about financial assistance," he added, though Washington is presumably supplying intelligence in addition to its own aerial operations.
The level of Western assistance will partly determine Kismayo's time-line, generating equal rewards and risks.
For the most part, Kenya and the AU's military campaign remains on course to open August's political stage under a relatively peaceful canopy. One year goes by quickly during counterinsurgency and Nairobi would be foolish to prematurely withdraw, a reaction that nullifies its own sacrifices and undermines Somalia's security. Services win counterinsurgencies and they require time, patience and efficiency to deliver. Kenyan troops have also yet to be rejected by Somalis as "foreign Christian invaders." Conversely, AU and UN officials have now lived through numerous political relapses and insurgencies, and realize the fragile nature of their military gains. Many different actors on numerous levels of national and international society, some with opposing visions of Somalia and the entire Horn of Africa, are rushing to construct a system of governance before August 20th. Any spillover will be left for the AU to clean up.
For every answer in Somalia, another question is usually lurking around the corner.