Kenya’s Military Operation in Somalia

Kenya is in the third week of a major military offensive inside neighboring Somalia. Called “Operation Protect the Nation,” it is Kenya’s largest military operation since independence in 1963. Around 1,600 troops are sweeping through areas of Southern Somalia controlled by the extremist Islamist group, al Shabaab. The Kenyan air force has also been in action, launching bombing raids on insurgent bases. Kenya’s military spokesman has even used his twitter account to warn residents living near al Shabaab camps in 10 towns to take shelter against imminent attacks.

Q1: Why did Kenya invade?

A1: Kenyans have gotten increasingly alarmed about Somalia’s chronic instability, which has spilled over its borders. One manifestation of this instability is Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya, which receives Somalis fleeing the humanitarian crisis in their own country. Numbers at this camp have swelled to almost 450,000 because of the famine conditions in parts of Southern Somalia. The Kenyan authorities were dismayed in October when two Spanish aid workers were kidnapped from the camp and taken into Somalia, prompting relief operations to be scaled back. But probably the final straw was the series of raids on coastal resorts by Somali criminals that preceded the attack in Dadaab. First, a British man was shot dead and his wife snatched from a beach resort close to the Somali border. Second, a disabled pensioner from France was seized near Lamu and taken to Somalia, where she subsequently died. Her kidnappers have demanded a ransom for her body. Tourism is critical to Kenya’s economy, and the country is entering peak holiday season. We don’t actually know if al Shabaab was responsible for these kidnappings. Indeed, the Kenyans claim they were planning a military incursion long before they happened. But it’s clear that they helped focus Kenyan minds on the seriousness of the Somali problem and underlined the need to take action.

Q2: What is the military objective?

A2: In essence, Kenya wants to keep al Shabaab at arms’ length from its border. It has already experimented with the idea of carving out a buffer zone inside Somalia. Earlier this year, it backed the formation of an autonomous region called Jubaland, or Azania, providing money and supplies to a hastily cobbled-together local governing authority under the leadership of a former Somali defense minister. This initiative never really got off the ground so this time round Kenya is taking the lead role rather than relying so heavily on local partners.

Q3: What is the extent of U.S. involvement in this operation?

A3: Kenya’s status as a long-standing security partner of the United States has given rise to speculation that the United States is participating in this operation. Certainly, both countries have a shared interest in defeating al Shabaab, which is a designated terrorist group in the United States. But U.S. officials are adamant that the decision to take military action was Kenya’s and Kenya’s alone. They say they were not even briefed beforehand about Nairobi’s intention to take action. They have, however, expressed strong support for the operation. Kenya has been coy about naming the international partners who are assisting with its military offensive. It is unlikely to be coincidental that a U.S. air base in Ethiopia recently became operational. The base is used as a launch pad for unmanned drones that conduct counterterrorism surveillance across the Horn of Africa. The Pentagon says the Reaper drones are unarmed, but they are capable of being deployed for offensive operations. Missiles from U.S. drones have previously been used to kill suspected al Qaeda leaders in Somalia.

Q4: What are the military risks for Kenya?

A4: Kenya has swept into Somalia on a wave of public support, and all the talk so far is of big military gains. But Kenya should not be fooled: this is a risky operation, and the risks will get bigger the longer the operation lasts. Kenya has not clearly defined its military objectives; instead, it has issued vague pronouncements to rid Somalia of extremists, which raise fears of a long and messy engagement. The history of outside military intervention in Somalia should also give the Kenyans pause for thought. Somalis do not tend to agree on much, but one thing that is guaranteed to unite them is opposition to external interference. We saw this in 2006, when Ethiopia invaded Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts Union, a governing authority that achieved considerable success in bringing a semblance of order to Mogadishu but whose anti-Ethiopian rhetoric caused alarm in Addis Ababa. The invasion turned into a brutal occupation, triggering an insurgency that has lasted to this day. The Ethiopians withdrew two years later. Kenya is not viewed with quite the same level of hostility as Ethiopia, which is Somalia’s traditional adversary. But it will have to tread carefully nonetheless. Civilian casualties are likely to intensify Somali hostility to Kenya. There have already been reports from an international medical organization that five civilians in a camp for internally displaced people were killed in an air strike on the town of Jibil. Mistakes like this will inflame local opinion.

Kenya also has a domestic community of approximately 2.4 million Kenyan Somalis to consider, mainly in Nairobi and on the coast. Concerns have been raised of a potential “fifth column” inside Kenya. Al Shabaab has played on those fears, promising terrorist attacks inside Kenya. There have already been three grenade attacks in the past 10 days. A man arrested in connection with two of the attacks admitted in court to being an al Shabaab sympathizer.

Another problem for Kenya is that its proxies in Southern Somalia are not reliable. Some of them were fighting with al Shabaab until fairly recently, before switching sides. There is also a danger of antagonizing its ally and neighbor, Ethiopia, which has been backing its own proxies inside Southern Somalia. The ethnic groups most likely to benefit from Kenya’s operation in Southern Somalia are from the Ogadeni clan, whose kin inside Ethiopia have long resisted the government in Addis Ababa.

Q5: Is al Shabaab on its last legs?

A5: While it would be premature to declare the demise of al Shabaab, the group is undoubtedly weaker than it was at the start of the year. First, any public support the group may once have had has long since evaporated due to the callous way it has handled the drought in the areas under its control. Within al Shabaab, there are splits between the international jihadists and those who have a more nationalist agenda. These splits have been further widened by the famine. The leaders whose domestic constituencies are worst affected want to allow foreign assistance into their regions, but they have been opposed by hardliners from other parts of the country.

As well as political weakness, al Shabaab is under military pressure. In addition to the Kenyan challenge, it is being squeezed by the Ethiopians on its western border. Furthermore, it was forced to retreat from Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, in August following an offensive by troops from the 9,000-strong African Union peacekeeping mission. (It described the withdrawal as “tactical.”) It has since retaliated with a string of suicide bombings, but this move to asymmetrical warfare has been interpreted by military analysts as a sign of weakness and desperation.

Until now, al Shabaab has been fairly robust financially. It has made a lot of money from taxes, port revenues, and exports of charcoal. For this reason, it will be interesting to see what happens if Kenyan troops are able to secure the coastal city of Kismayo, an al Shabaab stronghold. Control of Kismayo port is a significant revenue stream for al Shabaab, and if they lost it, they would suffer a big hit financially.

Having said all this, it is probably too early to write off al Shabaab. First, there is a risk that the Kenyan operation will backfire and that the invasion will help rally support behind al Shabaab just at a time when it was starting to look weak. Also, there is a big question mark over its main domestic competitor, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which shows no sign that it can capitalize on al Shabaab’s frailties. The TFG has international support but is hated by most Somalis for its incompetence, corruption, and inability to provide public services. Even if al Shabaab is pushed out, the inadequacies of the TFG mean that the most likely outcome for Somalia will be a governance vacuum and another descent into warlordism.

Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Richard Downie