September 29, 2012

Politico-Military Battle For Kismayo Begins

Under the guise of night and the surveillance of Western intelligence, Kenyan forces seized the beaches of Kismayo on Friday in pursuit of Operation Linda Nchi's primary objective. The assault culminates an 11-month grind over some 120 miles and was supposedly planned at a level "never before seen" in African military history. What exactly is taking place in Kismayo depends on who's talking, but Kenya's government is clearly flanking al-Shabaab on Somalia's propaganda lines.

"Mission Accomplished," reads the front page of Kenya's Daily Nation.

Speaking from Kismayo rather than his usual podium in Nairobi, army spokesman Cyrus Oguna offered his version of the unfolding Operation Sledge Hammer and its run-up. He claims that Kenyan airstrikes and AU ground troops deceived al-Shabaab in preparation for a sea landing, an undertaking that required three days of clandestine mobilization up Somalia's coast. Four transport ships (including Nairobi's newly-restored flagship, KNS Jasiri) dropped their ground units five miles north of the city, to give Kenyan troops first dibs on Kismayo, with helicopter gunships and Northrop F-5 warplanes applying their own superiority on the ground. Oguna told reporters that the bulk of al-Shabaab's new casualties are attributed to Kenya's aerial and naval power. Aside from these forces, a contingent of Special Forces landed at Kismayo Airport (located south of the city) and is fighting to secure the area.

"Kenyan military planners duped Al-Shabaab into believing that a land invasion of their last remaining bastion of Kismayu was imminent before making an amphibious landing from the sea," the Daily Nation writes.

While the insurgency may have been unable to predict the final point of Kenya's assault, independent accounts from within the city paint a more fluid situation. Witnesses initially told the BBC, Associated Press and Reuters that Kenyan, AU and Somali troops have yet to enter the city, contrary to Oguna's claim that "we are controlling three quarters of the city." Al-Shabaab has responded with light resistance in Kismayo's northern sector and will likely employ mobile tactics from the surrounding forests. They cannot afford to skip a counterattack entirely. More disturbingly, Kenyan air-strikes have reportedly killed and wounded an undisclosed number of civilians; capturing Kismayo first entails protecting the population.

However there is no reason to doubt the majority of Oguna's information: “We have sufficient ground and naval forces in Kismayu as we speak." AMISOM has brought such a high level of force into the port that al-Shabaab cannot be expected to wage conventional warfare. Even unconventional warfare will present a challenge against AMISOM's superior force, which coordinates with several local militias and Kismayo's clan leadership. Among them, the Ras Kamboni Movement led by Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, a major player that held Kismayo's governorship for the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) before Ethiopian troops invaded the country in 2007. This loose end is one of many lingering uncertainties in the overall equation of Kismayo's post-Shabaab governance.

Days, weeks or months may pass before the city is truly cleared and, it should be noted, al-Shabaab has lost the port several times before. The latest reports have now cleared the city of militants, according to residents and a statement from al-Shabaab commander Sheikh Mohamed Abu-Fatma. He tells the AFP, "We got orders from our superiors to withdraw from the city... this is part of a broader military tactic we have set for the enemy."

Forfeiting the city will land another blow against the insurgency, especially when considering the relative organization of AMISOM's resources and political strategy, but al-Shabaab's nationalist core is more likely to reintegrate than disintegrate into Somalia's environment.

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