Kenya’s military operation into Somalia is now well into its second week, with tough battles ahead in the Islamist-held town of Afmadow and the port city of Kismayo, and few signs that this incursion will have an early exit.
But the Kenyan attack, which appears to have caught Kenya’s Western allies and even the Somali government by surprise, has gathered support from other regional powers in East Africa, who argue that the time has come to finish off the Al Qaeda-affiliated Somali group, Al Shabab, once and for all.
In the past week, leaders including the African Union’s Jean Ping and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) regional group have endorsed Kenya’s operation, in stark contrast to the Western-backed Somali president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who condemned the presence of Kenyan troops on Somali soil. But while it is still unknown how long the operation had been planned, and who had been informed in advance, it has become clear that Kenya’s military advance into Somalia is a long-term commitment, with uncertain – but powerful – consequences.
“We have been aware of what Kenya is doing,” said the spokesman for Uganda People’s Defense Forces, Felix Kulayigye, quoted by the Nairobi newspaper, the East African. Uganda, which provides some 6,000 troops for the 8,000-strong African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been pushing its fellow African Union members for some time to contribute troops, arguing that Uganda and Burundi should not bear the burden alone.
Taking on Al Shabab, Mr. Kulayigye added, “is a regional issue, an African issue.”
If Kenya is beginning to coordinate its military actions with those of its regional partners – including Uganda and perhaps Ethiopia, which invaded Somalia briefly in 2006 – then it is doing so without explaining its larger goals to the Kenyan people themselves.
With two Kenyan battalions, serving under a mission called Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Nation) and slowly descending on Kismayo, Kenyan authorities have largely gone quiet on the public information front.
Neither President Mwai Kibaki nor Prime Minister Raila Odinga has taken to the television screens or radio waves to explain the overall goals of the mission, and to prepare the public for the likely sacrifices that will come from this, Kenya’s first major military war on foreign soil.
All of which leaves many Kenyans to wonder just how Kenya will define victory, against a ragtag militia force that can easily blend into the population, and when Kenyan troops can come home.
“The Somali president is saying that Kenya is not welcome, and nothing makes Somalis unite like a foreign invader,” says John Githongo, a prominent Kenyan anticorruption fighter in Nairobi. He argues that Kenya’s military and security sector may be illegal, since “Kenya’s parliament did not declare war on Somalia. Apparently that was not an obstacle.”
By last week, Kenyan military spokesmen had reported that Kenyan troops were digging in to positions against a frontline force of Al Shabab fighters in the south-central town of Afmadow. Kenyan military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir initially reported that Western planes had bombarded Kismayo, then later said the bombing came from French naval ships off the coast. While the US is known to have flown armed drones over Somalia in the past, targeting senior Al Shabab commanders, both the US and French governments denied involvement in the military operations, other than offering intelligence support.
“For many years, the United States has provided capacity building assistance to help Kenya defend its land and maritime border against terrorist threats and armed incursion,” the US State Department told the Monitor in an e-mailed statement. “The United States is not participating in Kenya's current operation in Somalia.”
Inside Somalia, eyewitnesses tell the Monitor that many of Al Shabab’s fighters have gone underground rather than face the Kenyan Army in a conventional fight.
“We have come through a lot of fighting,” says Somali aid worker Bashir Ali (not his real name), reached by phone near Bardera. “The Shabab here have all gone into hiding. They have changed from their fatigues and put on jeans and are mixing with the public.”
Meanwhile, in Nairobi, security continues to be stepped up, and Kenyan police announced the arrest of a “known terror suspect,” whose home was found to have 13 grenades, an AK-47 assault rifle, a submachine gun, and several pistols. It was not clear at press time whether the arrest is related to a pair of grenade attacks in the past few days against a downtown Nairobi bar and a crowded bus station, in which dozens were injured and one Kenyan was killed.