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Kenyans ask if military attack in Somalia has exit strategy

Kenya's military incursion into Somalia, provoked by string of kidnappings by Al Qaeda-affiliated group Al Shabab, have some Kenyans asking whether the risks are worthwhile.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / October 20, 2011

Kenyan Army soldiers in a military parade at Nyayo National Stadium during celebrations of Heroes Day, in Nairobi, Kenya on Oct. 20.

Khalil Senosi/AP

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Nairobi, Kenya

Five days into its military incursion into Somalia, Kenya’s military forces are closing in on an insurgent stronghold in what is their first major military operation outside of Kenyan soil since the end of the colonial period.

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The operation – prompted by a number of provocations, most notably the kidnappings of foreign tourists from Kenya's port city of Lamu and the kidnappings of aid workers along the border – is a surprising show of military muscle for a country that has preferred to negotiate its way out of trouble with neighbors. And while the incursion, called Operation Protect the Nation, is still in first days, Kenyans are already voicing concerns about its strategic goals and whether there is an exit strategy.

“Fighting Al Shabab [the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group in Somalia] cannot be a knee-jerk reaction, but a deliberate and fully planned campaign that should have taken not less than three to four months of preparation,” wrote Imaana Laibuta, a retired Kenyan Army major, in a column in the Nation newspaper, adding that Kenyans have a right to ask their government if “their soldiers are fighting a good fight and not an unplanned campaign in reaction to the hue and cry following the recent kidnappings of foreigners.”

Any operation in Somalia carries great risks for Kenya, including the likely backlash of Al Shabab militants or operatives against military targets as well as civilian targets such as tourist areas, airports, and congested urban zones.

For evidence of the new risks Kenyans could face, they need not look further than neighboring Uganda, where Al Shabab launched twin suicide bombings that killed at least 74 people during a World Cup soccer match in July of 2010. Al Shabab said it launched the attack because of Uganda’s military support of Al Shabab’s enemy, the Somali government.

Humanitarian aid organizations also have warned that military operations within Somalia are likely to cause even greater suffering for hundreds of thousands of civilian populations already at risk of starvation during the ongoing drought and famine in the Horn of Africa region.

Small wonder, then, that Kenyans want assurance that all of this is well planned and worthwhile.

“By evoking the charter of the UN to claim the right to self defense, and by going all the way to Mogadishu to make a bilateral agreement with the Somali government to fight Al Shabab, Kenya is showing they are ready to use military force,” says Joakim Gundel, a commercial sector analyst and Somalia expert for Katuni Consultancy, which works with humanitarian aid groups working in south central Somalia.

“But on the other hand, this is risky because Al Shabab will do everything to trigger a reaction of the clans against Kenyan forces,” Mr. Gundel says.

Kidnapped foreigners and famine

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