Kenya’s Intervention in Somalia

On October 16, 2011, two battalions of the Kenyan army, numbering 2,400 troops, crossed the border into southern Somalia. While the ostensible catalyst for the intervention was a spate of high-profile cross-border kidnappings and murders by freelance Somali criminals, a longer-term set of ambitions and objectives underlay the operation, which, according to some analysts, was contemplated by elements of the Kenyan military as early as 2009. Whether the operation can ultimately succeed in furthering Kenya’s short- and longer-term objectives is uncertain. The deployment (as with most interventions in Somalia) may have unanticipated costs, complications, and consequences both within Kenya and the broader region that undermine short-term gains and weaken domestic and regional support.

Within the space of five weeks in September and early October 2011, Somali gunmen crossed into Kenya and murdered a British tourist and captured his wife, abducted a Frenchwoman who later died in captivity, and kidnapped two Spanish aid workers from the Dadaab refugee camp. These events aroused concern about the security situation in Kenya’s Northeastern Province and neighboring Lamu District and the potential consequences for the tourist industry. Three days after the Dadaab incident, Kenya mounted its Somali intervention.

Kenya intervened for a series of reasons: although the recent cross-border attacks provided an immediate trigger, concern about the flow of Somali refugees into Kenya dated back to the 1990s; national security concerns and the deteriorating situation in the northern pastoralist regions of Kenya played a part, as did personal economic and political interests of senior Kenyan politicians and soldiers from Northeastern Province’s Ogadeni Somali community.

Elements in the army, led by senior Kenyan Somali officers and politicians, including Minister of State for Defense Yusuf Haji, had long desired to intervene. They were eager to test Kenya’s well-equipped but little-used army in war conditions, to advance the interests of their own Ogadeni sub-clans in Jubaland, to gain personally from the stabilization of trade in cattle and other commodities, to capture the port of Kismayu, and to establish a Kenya-dominated buffer zone south of the River Juba, driving al Shabaab into hostile terrain north of the river. In recent years, Ogadeni interests in Jubaland have been marginalized as al Shabab has established control. The Kenyans are well placed to establish an understanding with the Ogadenis, as the clan straddles the border, but they must be careful to take into account the Marehan and Harti, the other major clan in Jubaland.

Personal and sub-clan benefits reinforced Kenya’s national interests. President Mwai Kibaki and other Kenyan leaders have been determined to restore order in the country’s northern marches, where security had deteriorated since an Ethiopian attack on al Shabaab forces in late 2010. They are eager to begin construction of a deep-water port at Lamu, near the Somalia border, to serve as the terminus of new oil pipelines from Uganda and Southern Sudan. The government has grandiose plans, costing an estimated $30 billion, to open up northern Kenya over the next 30 years. Such vast investment requires much tighter control over the region.

Nonetheless, the military’s move came as a surprise to many. Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Foreign Minister Moses Wetang’ula were not part of the inner decisionmaking team and were only informed 10 days after the final decision to cross the border had been taken. The rest of the cabinet was presented with a fait accompli. The timing of the invasion, which coincided with the onset of the monsoon rains, was in many respects inauspicious. But politically in Kenya and militarily in Mogadishu, it was well timed. The kidnappings and murders of foreign nationals in Kenya provided the perfect excuse for senior Somali officers and their allies to convince President Kibaki of the need to intervene, even though the raids had been conducted by freelance forces rather than al Shabaab.

American and British officials had discouraged the Kenyan government from intervening, arguing that more time should be given to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the internationally backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and the strategy of working with local Somali proxies. The Kenyans had endorsed this last idea and for the last two years have trained refugee Somalis in the so-called Isiolo militia to operate against al Shabaab on both sides of the border. They have established close contacts with six primarily Ogadeni Somali militias fighting al Shabaab, including the Ras Kamboni militia and forces associated with the self-proclaimed autonomous region of Azania, led by former Somali defense minister Mohammed Abdi Mohammed (Professor Gandhi). These Somali groups have fought alongside the Kenyan army since its invasion began.

The situation along the border was becoming increasingly critical in the months before October. Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, which sits only 60 miles from the Kenya-Somalia border, has now existed for over 20 years. Originally intended to provide refuge for 90,000 people, it now houses nearly 500,000 refugees from Somalia, making it the third-largest city in Kenya. Conditions in the camp are desperate, especially following the onset of the monsoon rains in October, which left the camp flooded and triggered an outbreak of cholera. Meanwhile, 6,000 people a month were crossing the border and heading for Dadaab and other settlements in search of food as they sought to escape the prolonged drought that has afflicted the broader region and Somalia in particular for the past two years, leading to famine in areas controlled by al Shabaab. Security sweeps by the Kenyan police and military failed to stem recruitment by al Shabaab and other militias among disaffected youths in the camps.
Before they intervened, the Kenyans held meetings in August and September 2011 with both the Ugandan and Ethiopian militaries, advising them of the planned attack and attempting to coordinate tactics. The Ethiopians, with 4.4 million restless Ogadeni Somalis living within their own borders, needed to be reassured about the potentially growing power of the Ogadeni sub-clans and their militias in Jubaland, and the effect that the intervention would have on al Shabaab. The Meles government in Addis Ababa was reluctant to see the Islamist militia’s forces pushed northward toward the semiautonomous Somali region of Puntland. The Ugandans were more enthusiastic and willing to coordinate attacks in Mogadishu, where their troops are the largest contributor to the AMISOM contingent, with the Kenyan drive across the border. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was closely involved and seems to have known more about the planned intervention and much earlier than even most senior Kenyan politicians. He flew to Nairobi on October 17 to reaffirm decisions already taken and give moral support.

As the Kenyans advanced into Jubaland toward their key target, the port of Kismayu some 155 miles from the border and a vital economic resource for al Shabaab, they met stiff resistance and bad weather. Kenya’s 2,400 troops were soon bogged down and strung out along a lengthy supply corridor. Al Shabaab took the opportunity to redeploy, constructing defensive positions. By the end of November, the Kenyans had reportedly lost 100 men killed in action, a number that has now reportedly doubled. Meanwhile, Ugandan troops in AMISOM made a major push to drive al Shabaab out of their remaining strongholds in Mogadishu, losing 120 men in intense street fighting in the first week of November. Finally, the Ethiopians also advanced across the border in the northwest, accompanied by supporting Somali militia. The three armies sought to capture the main al Shabaab forces in a pincer operation in arid territory, where the local community is strongly Sufi and hostile to the Salafist version of Islam espoused by al Shabaab.

In terms of equipment, the Kenyan army was well prepared. Although it numbers only 24,000 total troops, Kenya’s armed forces are singularly well equipped by African standards. With annual defense expenditure of $800 million in recent years, predicted to reach $1 billion this year even before the intervention, Kenya’s military spending dwarfs that of its neighbors. Some sources suggest that the Kenyans have received as much as another $3 billion in security and military support from the United States since September 11, 2001. The display of tanks, armored cars, heavy artillery, and helicopter gunships paraded on Kenyan television suggests that the invasion force is well equipped, even if the Kenyan army has never fought a war outside its borders since independence, unlike its neighbors.
The invasion is proving a heavy burden financially and in terms of casualties. Estimates suggest that it is costing $180 million and 50 deaths per month. Financially, Kenya cannot sustain this burden and hopes that the cost of the operation will be taken over by an expanded AMISOM budget as the African Union force is increased from its current 8,000 members. Meanwhile, the Kenyan media is maintaining a patriotic blackout on the number of casualties. Journalists are embedded with the troops, but both frontline reporters and their colleagues in Nairobi seem content to rely on news handouts from the military. Patriotic enthusiasm for the intervention runs high in Nairobi and “up-country” Kenya, but the conflict is having serious consequences on the economy of Northeastern Province and in the tourist haven of Lamu District, where the local fishing industry has been completely disrupted. Kenya is banking on financial support for the intervention, but Western powers are reluctant to foot the bill and the French and Americans have refused to provide air support for the operation. The financial and economic consequences of the intervention may therefore prove to be Kenya’s greatest misjudgment.
Kenya’s aims may not be the same as those of the United States and the European Union. Western countries have currently staked their interests on building a strong central government in Mogadishu that can provide some cohesion for a Somali state. Both Kenya and Ethiopia, the main voices in the regional political group, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), would be quite willing to accept the balkanization of Somalia with five or six regions linked in a weak confederal structure. Neither particularly wishes to see a stable government in Mogadishu and certainly not one with a serious Islamist presence. Both countries, however, want increased stability along their borders and are keen to work with Somali proxies to establish a more controlled and peaceful situation along their frontiers. This might result in a relatively effective confederal arrangement in the Somali interior—preferably including the currently autonomous regime in Somaliland.

So far, al Shabaab has not launched major bomb attacks in Nairobi and other cities, although it has the capacity to do so. Perhaps it fears a backlash on Kenya’s own Somali community of 2.4 million, which includes as many as 600,000 refugees and another 600,000 illegal entrants. Two bombs have exploded in Nairobi with relatively modest casualties, but in the pastoralist semi-arid north of Kenya, al Shabaab continues to inflict damage, with assassinations of government officials and local leaders. Bomb attacks in the region are running at two or three a week. The frequency of al Shabaab attacks has not dramatically changed since mid-October and demonstrates that the group remains far from defeated either in southern Somalia or inside Kenya. Kenya’s intervention in the short term is not likely to arouse the same opposition as Ethiopia’s in 2006, because of the close business and communal ties between the Ogadeni Somali in Kenya and in Jubaland, especially if the Kenyans can bring stability, increase trade, and incorporate other important clans such as the Marehan and Harti. Such an accommodation may well represent the best chance of defeating al Shabaab and bringing some stability to Jubaland.

David W. Throup is a senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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David W. Throup