Friday, November 4, 2011

This Week At War: Kenyan Edition

Kenya is pressing on with their first military mission abroad, as their troops this week pushed deeper into neighboring Somalia in pursuit of militias allied with Somalia's Islamist al-Shabaab organization. The two sides have already fought several skirmishes, with both Kenya and al-Shabaab claiming to have killed a handful of the other side's fighters. The real battles are shaping up though as the Kenyans plan to take several strategic, al-Shabaab-held towns, including the vitally important port city of Kismayu, al-Shabaab's main link with the outside world. And Kenya is warning residents in ten Somali towns to expect to be “under attack continuously” during the next few days as the Kenyan military pursues al-Shabaab militias. That warning came by way of the Twitter feed of Kenyan military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir, though you have to wonder if sending out messages via Twitter is really the best way to warn civilians in one of the poorest and most chaotic regions on the planet.

The upcoming attack is part of Operation Linda Nchi, which symbolically means “Protect the Nation” in Swahili. Kenyan officials say that they were spurred into action after al-Shabaab members crossed the border and kidnapped several European tourists from resorts in northern Kenya. Tourism makes up a major part of Kenya's economy, so the Kenyans felt they couldn't let the cross-border raids go unanswered.

But some analysts are questioning the wisdom of Linda Nchi. The Kenyans themselves are unclear about whether they intend to occupy Kismayu, assuming they get that far, or whether they plan to just capture/kill as many al-Shabaab fighters as they can in the city and then leave. And if they do leave, what keeps al-Shabaab from just retaking the area once the Kenyans are gone? It is worth noting that Ethiopia found itself in a similar situation a few years ago and launched their own invasion of Somalia in 2006 in response to cross-border incursions by Islamist militias along their border with Somalia. The Ethiopian army won some early victories against the militias, but soon found itself bogged down in a hit-and-run guerrilla war (much like the ones the US military found itself engaged in in both Iraq and Afghanistan). After two years the Ethiopians had enough and pulled their troops out, leaving a peacekeeping force from the African Union to fight al-Shabaab. The same thing then is likely to happen to Kenya should they decide to stay in southern Somalia. The Kenyans so far haven't offered any plans for how they would stabilize the region as a way of keeping al-Shabaab from returning. The old Kenyan strategy, which we discussed here a few months ago, was to prop up a separatist state in the border region of southern Somalia called Azania (or Jubaland depending on who you talk to), whose “government” pledged to fight al-Shabaab. But according to Tedai Marima on Al Jazeera, working with the folks in Azania/Jubaland can cause a whole new set of problems, since the state they would like to create also includes Somalis living on the Kenyan and Ethiopian sides of the border as well.

And then there's al-Shabaab themselves. Al-Shabaab tends to follow the insurgent's playbook and avoids direct conflict with professional militaries wherever they can, preferring hit-and-run attacks; or just outright acts of terrorism. As “punishment” for supplying the bulk of the troops in the AU peacekeeping mission, al-Shabaab staged a suicide bombing in Uganda's capital, Kampala, last year that killed 70 people. Al-Shabaab has now threatened similar attacks in Kenya.

There's also evidence that al-Shabaab is deepening their ties with the world's most famous terror outfit, al-Qaeda. A correspondent with The Guardian reporting on the ongoing drought in southern Somalia filed this story about al-Qaeda distributing humanitarian aid at an al-Shabaab-run refugee camp. Even more disturbing for Western anti-terror operatives is the claim that the relief group was led by an American al-Qaeda calling himself Abu Abdullah Muhajir. It is not unheard of for Somali-Americans to return to Somalia and take up with an Islamist militia – a recent suicide bombing in Mogadishu was traced back to a recently-returned Somali-American. But Muhajir was described by The Guardian as being “white” and a full-member of al-Qaeda, which changes the equation a bit. It could be a sign that al-Qaeda is taking a serious look at lawless Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning national government for 20 years now, as a new Afghanistan, a central base of operations for them to use while they try to rebuild.
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