Thursday, October 27, 2011

Kenya: Implications of Kenya’s Military Offensive Against Al-Shabaab

Source: ISS

Implications of Kenya’s Military Offensive Against Al-Shabaab

Andrews Atta-Asamoah & Emmanuel Kisiangani, Senior Researchers, African Conflict Prevention Programme, Nairobi & Pretoria Offices

Saturday October 15, 2011 marked a dramatic turning point in the history of Kenya, and particularly the Kenyan army, as the political leadership of the East African country announced a major military offensive against Al-Shabaab, one of East Africa’s most daring armed groups operating in war-torn Somalia. The operation, code-named “Operation Linda Nchi” which means “protect the nation” in Kiswahili, aims primarily at creating a buffer zone of about a 100 km on the Somali side of the Kenya-Somalia border so as to prevent incursions into Kenyan territory from armed groups such as Al-Shabaab and Somali pirates operating from the other side of the border. The military operation is complemented by extensive internal swoops of neighbourhoods suspected to have Al-Shabaab presence and sleeper cells: extensive intelligence gathering, and the beefing up of internal security across the country, especially in Nairobi.

Kenya will now need to brace itself to bear the consequences of involvement in such a fluid conflict as is Somalia. This relates to the possibility of reprisal attacks that Al-Shabaab may want to employ against the interests of Kenya both inside the country and also at the combat front. A grenade attack on a nightclub in Nairobi early Monday that injured over a dozen people and a further attack on a bus station, that killed one person, have already heightened fears that Al-Shabaab is acting on its threats to Kenya. There is no doubt that Al-Shabaab has the capacity to strike, given its recent history in Somalia and Kampala in Uganda. Despite the beefing up of security across Kenya and particularly in Nairobi, the availability of sleeper cells and regional Al-Shabaab elements raise the stakes of Kenya’s vulnerability and particularly the ability of Kenya to maintain such consistency of security presence on the streets till the threat is over. Given that Al-Shabaab may want to strike when Kenya least expects it, it goes without saying that the need to maintain security by beefing up operations on the streets may have to continue for a long time to come.

The most immediate trigger of Kenya’s offensive against Somalia is the spate of kidnappings of foreigners near the Kenya-Somalia border, the most recent of which was the whisking away of two Spanish aid workers from the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya’s north-eastern province. This followed two other kidnappings of foreign nationals along the Kenyan Coast, which has sparked a negative ripple effect on the tourism industry in Kenya. Tourism accounts for a crucial share of Kenya’s revenue. The operation is also informed by the numerous incursions that belligerents operating from the Somali territory have consistently made into Kenyan territories on one hand, and the somewhat laid back response of the Kenyan political leadership to such provocations on the other. This has led to a perception among some Kenyans that the country is weak and the leadership lacks the political will to utilise its military and economic might to defend the territorial integrity of the country The launch of “Linda Nchi” is thus a product of several internal and external pressures but particularly economic, the quest for the maintenance of territorial integrity, and assertion of sovereignty on the part of the East African country.

Whereas the operation promises to improve the security of Kenya once the buffer zone is achieved, it adds a new twist to the dynamics of insecurity in Somalia and the entire region and presents numerous implications worthy of critical consideration. First, Kenya has been largely noted for its preference for diplomacy and a non-military approach to the Somali crisis. By putting boots on the ground, however, this characteristic non-military and pacifism with respect to the Somali crisis is history. The implications of this is that Somali belligerents who hitherto had very little motivation for targeting Kenya now find Kenya as one of its adversaries. In the past, Kenya had always suffered from the activities of such belligerents by virtue of its hosting of “Westerners” and their foreign interests. By this move and the subsequent declaration of intend to use reprisal attacks by Al-Shabaab against Kenya, the country has effectively moved from a victim to a target of the activities of belligerent groups - a situation that is likely to have long-term security implications for Kenya.

Considered from the Somali side, “Operation Linda Nchi” was not part of the variables during the recent crafting of the roadmap of the political process. Having been thrown into the dynamics, however, it is going to impact greatly on the achievability of the roadmap. Its impact will be positive if the operation’s limited goal of creating a buffer zone is achieved quickly and stabilised, since that will help with the extension of security beyond Mogadishu clearly articulated in the roadmap. However, if it becomes protracted, the roadmap will have to introduce Kenya’s presence as a new variable. In recent times Uganda has been very instrumental in Somalia. This was explicit with the signing of the Kampala accord between Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed​, President of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden facilitated by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, which brought an end to about five months of political stalemate in the Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs) and helped a great deal in charting the course for the transitional period. Kenya’s presence increases the external stakes in Somalia and stands the chance of further geo-politicising the issues if not well coordinated.

Among Somalis, it is interesting that Kenya’s incursion has not raised the ire of the masses, as was the case with Ethiopia`s invasion in 2006. This is possibly because there is a sizeable population of Somalis inside Somalia and in Kenya who view Kenya as having been hospitable to their families, on one hand and on the other, as having genuine grievances in relation to the abductions. Indeed, for decades, Kenya has offered asylum to Somalia`s refugees fleeing from the political turmoil in their motherland. Most of these immigrants are now bona fide Kenyan citizens, having acquired their citizenship - some through legal and others through illegal channels. The absence of demonstrations could also be explained by the fact that there are Somalis who do not share Al-Shabaab’s philosophy and activities. However, this situation could easily change should there be an increase in cases of civilian casualties as a result of Kenya’s military attacks. Al-Shabaab would capitalise on such cases to inflame Somali emotions and rally for support. Already, there are signs of emerging faultlines with President Sheikh Sharif changing his tune on Kenya’s campaign. Speaking on Monday on the frontline of the war, Sheikh Sharif argued that Kenya should not go beyond the training of Somali soldiers and provision of logistical support in specified and agreed areas.

On the combat front, Kenya will have to brace itself for combat casualties as the operation progresses. Since the beginning of the operation, only five military officers have been lost as a result of technical hitches from a helicopter rather than the advance of Alshabaab vis-a-vis more than 100 deaths of Alshabaab fighters. This will give room for Alshabaab to exploit their characteristic guerrilla tactics of sniper fire, use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), roadside bombing, and suicide bombings.

Another important issue relates to the cost of the war. So far, economic motivation has been key in Kenya’s going into Somalia. However, the cost of the operation is likely to keep increasing with advances and protraction of the situation on the ground. Against a backdrop of recent trends of inflation, rising cost of living and a depreciating Kenyan Shilling, the government will have to dip further into its coffers in order to sustain the cost of the military operation.

Further critical questions remain such as whether the operation was rushed or thought-through. Even though the government’s communication indicates a well thought-through process, the context and a number of indicators point otherwise. The timing of the operation is especially notable if placed in the context of the country’s economic hardships and the rainy season. The latter is already hampering the advance of the Kenyan troops.

To be successful, however, there is the crucial need for the operation to stay within the limits of the creation of the buffer of 100km. Any attempt to go after Al Shabaab across the entire territories of Somalia will be extremely challenging and may affect the success of the operation. Management of communication is also important. Since the announcement of the operation, the media has been quick to tag it as a war. The characterization of the operation as a war without considering the impact of such a tag in the minds of the masses, especially tourists threatens to defeat the primary goal of the operation – to assure citizens and visitors to Kenya that the security of the country is under control. To avert the impact of sensationalisation by the media, the government’s communication machinery will have to continue providing regular updates to the media to prevent speculative reporting.

Regionally, the presence of Kenyan troops at the moment also gives the East African Standby Force (EASF) an opportunity to consider “re-hatting” and using the Kenyans as a core-force of a multinational regional force by beefing up their numbers with additional troops raised from the region. This will lead to the creation of a multinational force representative of the regional interest and collective will to deal with the threat of Alshabaab, which can eventually be subsumed by the ongoing AU mission.