August 9, 2012

Imminent AU Assault On Kismayo?

The first hint came months ago, when Kenyan policymakers finally green-lit Operation Linda Nchi in October 2011. Despite the absence of a public time-line or an initial explanation of Kenya's role within the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), Nairobi's intentions in southern Somalia were telegraphed by both countries' urgent political environments. The logical assumption of Kenya's best-case scenario: clear al-Shabaab from its territory and the port of Kismayo before August 20th, when the UN-mandated Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is set to expire, and transfer the city's authority to Somalia's new government. Kenyan troops would hold the area until AU reinforcements arrive, or else embed  themselves with the populace until the government can send enough national troops and police.

A variety of factors emerged to lower the speed of Kenya's advance and throw its time-line into doubt. While al-Shabaab has yet to mount an organized resistance of any urban territory, a combination of guerrilla warfare and cross-border terrorism placed a premium on Kenya's rear lines. The speed of three battalions has suffered from al-Shabaab's tactics, the mud of Somalia's second rainy season and the need to help tens of thousands of Somalis as they advance through a relatively large area. Statements of securing all of Jubaland, an area nearly three times the size of the targeted Lower Juba, were realistically curtailed by months of hard fighting. On top of these problems, al-Shabaab has forcefully encouraged Kismayo's residents to fight with them and amplified the danger of storming a city.

February gave way to the first tangible anxiety of Kenya's neighbors when, according to Ethiopian commanders, Nairobi aborted a synchronized offensive on the port. Ethiopian convoys had rolled into Somalia's western flank to throw al-Shabaab into deeper disarray, and eagerly remain on standby if their armor is needed.

Yet Nairobi, realizing the significance of August 20th in regards to Somalia and its own power projection, still refuses to give up on its objective. Two months ago Prime Minister Raila Odinga repeated his promise to reach Kismayo before the 20th. Over 4,000 Kenyan soldiers were later absorbed into AMISOM, sealing the multi-year campaign that Nairobi has now signed on for, as Defense Minister Yussuf Haji declared "we cannot stop fighting in Somalia." Several weeks ago, The Los Angeles Times reported that a battalion from Sierre Leone was headed into southern Somalia (on America's dollar) to accelerate Kenya's march on the port. Now comes the latest assistance: Ugandan helicopter gunships.

Lt. Moses Omayo, spokesman for the Uganda Airforce, tells Reuters, "We have sent helicopters which will provide air cover for combat troops, escort convoys, conduct rescue missions and airdrop forces."

Omayo claims that the helicopters will "conduct operations only in areas in which troops that include those from Burundi and Djibouti are deployed," but neither country has deployed troops into the southern Somalia. Djibouti has yet to publicly move into Baidoa to relieve Ethiopian troops, as reportedly planned, so the country is unlikely to enter Kismayo in the near future. The Ugandan combat and support helicopters are more likely to cover an AU force of Kenyans, Ugandans and Ethiopians, with TFG soldiers and the proxy group Ras Kamboni serving in auxiliary or police roles. Reuters reports that a "combined force in Somalia is planning an onslaught on Kismayu... before August 20."

In addition to Ugandan and Kenyan air support, Odinga says that he has repeatedly requested naval assistance from Western powers operating in the region.

The least-worst scenario has dogged Nairobi across southern Somalia; instead of clearing Kismayo, it must be content to reach the port by the 20th and hope that al-Shabaab forfeits. However the militancy remains a constant threat in the cities that it has openly ceded, and the lucrative Kismayo occupies ground worth fighting for. The city has also exchanged hands numerous times due to the central government's inability to govern, a possibility that cannot be eliminated despite the progress made in Mogadishu. To their credit (and the help of Western governments), AU capitals have devised a pronged strategy to knock al-Shabaab out of its urban environment and create space for a new government to fill. That Kismayo's future, like Somalia's other war-torn cities, depends on a stable government (central or local) is no secret to any Somali or Somali observer.

When AU and Somali forces finally reach Kismayo, and how long the area takes to clear and hold, remains fogged by war clouds.

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