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Butchered and Blamed: Kenya’s dilemma in Somalia battlefield

“The biggest security gamble Kenya has taken since independence.” 

On 16 October 2011, the Kenya troops launched Operation Linda Nchi. Some 2,000 troops were deployed to Somalia along three primary axes: a push towards Kismaayo along the coast via Ras Kamboni; from the border crossing at Liboi through the Somali border town of Dhobley, toward Afmadow; and from the northern Kenyan border town of Elwaq into Somalia’s Gedo region.

But from then, more deaths both in the battlefield and at home massacred by al Shabaab groups have intensified, posing a dilemma whether the deployment was a wise decision in the first place. There raging debate among class from the political class that the troops concentrate on securing borders other than fighting inside Somalia.

The International Crisis Group referred to Linda Nchi as “the biggest security gamble Kenya has taken since independence.” In part, this was because it represented the KDF’s first expeditionary warfare campaign.

On 15 January 2016 and 27 January 2017, Al Shabaab fighters stormed Kenyan military bases at El Adde and Kulbiyow, respectively. There have been suggestions that the numbers of soldiers killed and captured was  the deadliest encounter in the history of modern peacekeeping.

Military sources that 234 Kenya Defense Force (KDF) troops were based at El Adde when al-Shabaab attacked and that 173 were killed, with another 13 taken hostage. The number of casualties reinforced the feeling that Kenya was paying a price to high by maintaining the troops within AMISOM.

Analysts have often pointed to a range of challenges that awaited the KDF in Somalia, including how to translate military power into political effects and how to prevent “blowback” in the form of increased Al Shabaab attacks back home.

The Kenyan intervention, like the Jubaland initiative before it, also generated tensions with Ethiopia because it empowered the Ogaden clan. This clan had powerful connections among Nairobi’s political elite and Ethiopia’s government worried that Kenyan support would strengthen the Ogaden National Liberation Front’s (ONLF) rebellion in its own Somali-dominated region.

KDF’s actions have shown that the military is a blunt instrument for dealing with political problems. Al Shabaab is first and foremost a political problem stemming from poor Somali governance and the grievances associated with it. Nor has Kenya’s intervention fundamentally altered the clan dynamics and conflicts which Al Shabaab exploits to retain relevance.

On the positive side, KDF operations weakened Al Shabaab by becoming part of a three-pronged offensive with AMISOM pushing out of Mogadishu and Ethiopian troops advancing across central Somalia.

Given that the Somali federal government is currently in turmoil on a range of issues and its security forces remain in a dire state, AMISOM’s transition will not be rapid. There is simply no quick or easy way for AMISOM to leave Somalia responsibly.

 Instead, the mission faces a number of difficult dilemmas, including when and how to leave, how to finance its operations in the interim, and how to transfer security responsibilities to a set of Somali forces that remain divided by clan politics and which are woefully equipped. These challenges are further complicated by endemic corruption at the highest levels of Somali politics.

For Kenya, the stakes are considerable but there are no great options. Obviously, the status quo isn’t ideal, with Al Shabaab attacks persisting and regular casualties among both the KDF and Kenyan citizens. But it could be worse.

The KDF operations are still supported financially by the European and receive logistics support from the UN Support Office in Somalia (UNSOS). The KDF also continues to receive significant security assistance from the US, UK and other partners, in part because of its role in AMISOM.

However, following the EU  to reduce the amount of allowances it pays to AMISOM troops by 20% from January 2016, KDF soldiers aren’t receiving fair compensation for the risks they are assuming while fighting against what both the UN Security Council and the African Union have identified as a major threat to international peace and security.

On the other hand, if the allegations are true that the KDF’s leadership is profiting from the illicit trade in charcoal, sugar and other commodities, then there is a strong financial incentive to stay put. The Kenyan contingent has become less popular with local Somalis, according to opinion   conducted between 2014 and 2016, and several partners have expressed their concerns. But so far, the KDF has largely brushed off the negative publicity.

So, if the KDF stays put, the key question becomes how it can help build effective Somali security forces. At the strategic level, Kenya’s government should push the Somali federal government and the regional states to implement the new national security architecture and London Policy Pact signed in May 2017.

At the operational level, given their areas of deployment, the KDF can really only play a significant role with the Jubaland forces since the Somali National Army has a minimal presence in this region. The alternative is for Kenya to cede any role in this area to another actor that might step forward to take the lead in developing the Somali army.

There’s also an additional dilemma: If AMISOM and its partners manage to build an effective set of Somali security forces and subsequently withdraw, will the Al Shabaab threats facing Kenya disappear? And even if Kenya was to withdraw from AMISOM, would it leave without its envisaged buffer zone and still have to address a range of domestic issues that explain how and why many Kenyan citizens join or support Al Shabaab?

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