Entering its third week, Operation Linda Nchi, the Kenyan army’s invasion into Somalia to fight terrorist group Al-Shabaab, threatens to devolve into the realm of the absurd. A military spokesman announced on Friday that large groups of donkeys in Somalia will be considered Al Shabaab "activity." Questionable military strategy aside, I fear this endeavor may turn out to be a huge mistake. Here are five reasons why:
1. Kenya may be underestimating the enemy
There seems to be a general impression that Al Shabaab is currently weakened and can thus be easily defeated. The recent spate of attacks attributed to the group in Kenya and Uganda, however, seem to point to the contrary. Additionally, Al Shabaab has proved extraordinarily resilient in the past. The whole mission rests on the assumption that the objectives can and will be achieved relatively quickly. However, the lessons of history suggest otherwise. Additionally, the Kenyan army has as yet failed to articulate a clear exit strategy. It is also important to note that the repeated abductions which prompted the invasion may not have been the work of Al Shabaab (who have categorically denied involvement), but rather that of smaller pirate groups or independent militias. In this case, then Kenya’s enemy in Southern Somalia is not Al Shabaab but general lawlessness in region, a much more formidable foe.
2. Similar operations (by better armies) have failed
In October 1993, American and UN peacekeepers suffered heavy losses at the hands of Somali militias, prompting a U.S. withdrawal. In 2006, the Ethiopian army, backed by the United States, successfully liberated Mogadishu from Al Shabaab and handed it over to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government only to see the city fall again to a new Al Shabaab. When it comes to military strength, Kenya is not Ethiopia, much less the United Nations or the United States. One therefore has to wonder how the Kenyan army hopes to succeed where these others have failed.
3. There is significant opposition from key stakeholders
Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has been openly critical of Kenya’s presence in Somalia, fearing that Kenya intends to establish an autonomous region in Juba. It is rumored that Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki was also initially opposed to the invasion and had to be convinced by senior advisers in the administration. Reactions from the independent Kenyan press have been lukewarm at best, and public opinion is likely to turn as soon Kenyan soldiers begin to suffer casualties. Critically, Kenya does seem to have the support of the Somali population, however if the civilian casualties already sustained continue to rise, this is unlikely to hold. Further, Al Shabaab and other Somali militias have in the past proved successful at rallying the population against the interference of the West, so French and U.S. support for the operation (initially denied but now confirmed) could quite easily turn the tide of support against the invasion.
4. The timing is poor
This invasion comes after one of the worst droughts in 60 years and before the start of harvesting season in the region. It is unclear how the mission will impact the region’s ongoing food crisis. It is also occurring during the rainy season which, with the lack of infrastructural development in southern Somalia, presents a serious operational and logistical challenge for any army (hence the use of donkey’s to transport arms). It is also bad timing for Kenya, which has internal structural problems,has a struggling economy affected by the weak dollar, and is experiencing rising tensions ahead of next year’s elections. This mission will be difficult to sustain economically and politically.
5. There is likely to be significant backlash
Destroying the group’s base in southern Somalia may have the counterproductive effect of splintering the organization and forcing it towards a more transnational method of operation which would mean increased attacked in places like Nairobi and Kenya. In fact, Al Shabaab, who pledged to respond in this way has already made good on its promise. Attacks of this kind are likely to increase the longer the operation is sustained.
Given the above, one wonders whether it wouldn’t be wiser for Kenya to leave the business of defeating Al Shabaab in Somalia to those currently tasked with it and focus instead (with the help of its international allies) on improving border security, improving internal monitoring and surveillance (a la the United States and Nigeria against Boko Haram), and cutting off Al Shabaab’s sources of funding in Nairobi.
Photo Credit: expertinfantry