(Originally published in the Journal of International Peace Operations, Volume 7, Number 5 – March-April 2012)
SINCE the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, Kenya has opted to pursue a multilateral and primarily diplomatic approach to addressing the many problems in Somalia. Yet by the fall of 2011, the persistent instability emanating from Somalia had crossed Kenya’s threshold for large-scale military intervention. In October 2011, the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) commenced Operation Linda Nchi – a conventional invasion of southern Somalia. Kenya’s objective, according to a government spokesman, was to dismantle the al-Qaeda-affiliated Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen without maintaining a prolonged presence in Somalia. There has since been speculation that Kenya also seeks to disrupt al-Shabaab’s finances by expelling it from the port city of Kismayo, which is the group’s greatest source of revenue. Although Kenya has one of the most professional militaries in Africa, prior to Operation Linda Nchi the KDF’s only recent combat experience had been a byproduct of its involvement in African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations. As a result, the KDF had limited experience conducting joint expeditionary operations and virtually no experience fighting an unconventional adversary like al-Shabaab. With approximately 2,000 troops involved in this operation, Kenya joined the ranks of the UN, AU, United States, and Ethiopia – all of which have tried (and largely failed) to stabilize Somalia over the course of the past two decades. Together, Somalia’s long-standing challenges and the KDF’s limited combat experience prompt the question of whether Kenya might be the next country that fails to stabilize Somalia.
Crossing the Border
When the KDF crossed the Somali border, the situation in Somalia was in flux and it was unclear what impact Kenya’s incursion would have on the developments that had been unfolding in the months prior. As a result of the failed short rains (deyr) in the fall of 2010 and the erratic long rains (gu) in the spring of 2011, Somalia was experiencing a drought-induced famine. After two decades of warfare south and central Somalia were particularly hard hit, with four million people in need of emergency assistance. An average of 1,300 Somalis per day were crossing into Kenya at the height of the famine, joining the 500,000 Somalis that had sought refuge there over the past two decades. Concurrently, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was becoming increasingly unpopular, ineffective, and bureaucratically deadlocked. In order to alleviate political infighting, the President of Uganda and the UN Special Representative for Somalia brokered the Kampala Accord in June 2011, which among other things, deferred the elections for the President, Speaker of Parliament, and his deputies until August 2012. In early September, various stakeholders were brought together for the Consultative Meeting on Ending the Transition in Somalia, during which they articulated a detailed roadmap to end the transitional period. Nonetheless, there was little optimism that these initiatives would break through the political stalemate in Mogadishu. In spite of these challenges, there was reason to be hopeful, as it appeared that the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and TFG forces were turning the corner in expanding the areas under government control. Al-Shabaab was in serious decline as a result of internal fissures regarding global versus local Islamist agendas, their high-casualty tactics and draconian methods employed to control the population, and their mismanagement of the response to the famine. Al-Shabaab had executed a “tactical retreat” from the capital in early August yet maintained control over most of south and central Somalia. In September and October, unidentified assailants entered Kenya via land and sea, kidnapping tourists from resorts near Lamu and aid workers from the Dadaab refugee complex. In the weeks that followed these attacks, Kenya launched military operations in the Gedo, Middle Juba, and Lower Juba regions of southern Somalia as part of Operation Linda Nchi.
KDF operations were fraught with operational and tactical challenges from the outset. To start, Kenya entered Somalia with insufficient force strength to clear the regions within its operating area of what was believed to be al-Shabaab’s core military strength of between 5,000 and 10,000 battle-hardened fighters. Rather than allowing the level of support for al-Shabaab to continue its downward trajectory, Kenya’s invasion risked recreating the dynamics that led to the group’s rise in 2006, where the presence of foreign troops, in this case the Ethiopian military, catalyzed resistance inspired by nationalism rather than ideology. In addition, within weeks of crossing into southern Somalia, the KDF was forced to contend with flooding and poor road conditions as a result of the deyr rains. Due to the challenges posed to the KDF’s mobility and sustainment two months passed before Kenyan forces were truly able to resume their advance. The KDF was consequently robbed of the opportunity to capitalize on al-Shabaab’s lack of preparation for such an invasion. This delay also potentially gave al-Shabaab, which had been reeling from a succession of blows, time to regroup.
These challenges notwithstanding, the KDF has slowly been able to gain control of territory in southern Somalia and turn it over to Somali forces which are, for the moment, aligned with the TFG. Conversely, al-Shabaab has generally avoided major combat and has instead been drawing the KDF further into Somalia, which has the potential advantage of spreading Kenya’s force strength, stretching KDF supply lines, and making it vulnerable to asymmetric tactics such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombs, ambushes, and snipers. Should the KDF reach Kismayo it may also find itself engaged in urban warfare, should al-Shabaab mount a fierce defense of this lucrative commercial asset. This would require a change in KDF tactics, which may include a shift away from reliance on airstrikes against al-Shabaab strongholds in favor of increased ground operations that could expose the KDF to greater combat casualties – especially if Kenyan forces attempt to minimize civilian casualties by avoiding indiscriminate fire and shelling of heavily populated areas. Regardless, even if Kismayo is conquered and turned over to TFG-aligned forces, there is no guarantee that the fight among said forces to control the city would cease there.
By late November, Kenya had entered discussions with the AU and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) regarding the integration of KDF troops into the next phase of AMISOM’s troop deployment. While command relationships and respective operational priorities are yet to be determined, the AU and the UN are drafting a new concept of operations for AMISOM in which troop-contributing nations would have primary responsibility for discrete regions in south and central Somalia. The UN is also considering increasing AMISOM’s authorized force strength to 17,731 troops, although an AU-UN joint technical assessment mission has estimated that nearly twice as many troops might be required for AMISOM to conduct concurrent offensive operations throughout south and central Somalia. Kenya is anticipated to send 4,700 troops to fight in the Middle and Lower Juba regions of Somalia, should the UN authorize an augmentation of AMISOM to 17,731 troops. Still, AMISOM has routinely faced significant obstacles securing troop contributions from AU member states and acquiring the funding and logistic support that is essential for countries to deploy on schedule and with the appropriate force package. Therefore, the possibility exists that AMISOM may not be able to muster the forces and resources required in time to take advantage of al-Shabaab’s weakened stature.
Will it work?
While Operation Linda Nchi has many inherent risks and challenges, Kenya’s failure in Somalia is not necessarily preordained. With al-Shabaab on the run and Kenya’s participation in AMISOM likely to be approved in the coming months, the KDF may well be an asset in the current offensive to consolidate areas under TFG control. However, as al-Shabaab is but one symptom of Somalia’s enduring security, political, and humanitarian challenges it is unlikely that the group’s demise would usher in an era of stability in Somalia that would, in turn, make Kenya more secure. Of note, although the UN has declared an end to famine conditions in south and central Somalia, the demand signal for humanitarian assistance persists and the option for Somalis to seek refuge in Kenya remains an attractive one. Moreover, the TFG’s political process remains deadlocked, and is potentially the Achilles’ heel of the entire effort to stabilize Somalia. Many Somalia analysts were not optimistic that the Kampala Accord and its consequent roadmap to end the transitional period would result in the establishment of an effective central government; their skepticism reflects the perception of the TFG as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Therefore, even if Operation Linda Nchi is effective at dismantling al-Shabaab, it may be unlikely to stabilize Somalia.