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Last Updated: 11/21/2011
Operation ‘Degrade Al-Shabaab Capacity’: Kenyan Mission with No Winners, But Losers
Patrick Mugo Mugo

If there is any lesson that the war on terror, now ten years old and counting, has brought to the surface, it is that conventional military is the worst possible tool to fight an insurgent group that coexists with and feeds from a complex crisis. The harder you hit the perceived stronghold with conventional strategies and weapons, the more complex the situation becomes. In this article, Patrick Mugo Mugo asks: what happens when you decide, as the Kenyan government, to go after the tail of Al-Shabaab and not its head? If we can assume that Al-Shabaab is an invisible creature of a complex crisis, what does that tell us about Somalia’s dithering Transitional Federal Government, which the Kenyan incursion purports to help? Why should the Kenyan government, well aware of American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, invade Somalia following the same script without even editing or rephrasing it? Even if the Kenyan military succeeds in ‘degrading Al-Shabaab capacity’, who will fill the void created in southern Somalia? But before all that, is it Al-Shabaab that is the problem, or is it the analyses that have come forth since al-Shabaab became credible threat?

“The campaign is not time bound. We [the Kenyan army] will pull out [of Somalia] when we feel safe enough along the common border”.

sfexaminer file photo

The above statement is not from an American general responding to journalists at the Pentagon about the American mission in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor is it from a Russian military general briefing journalists in Moscow during the Chechnya war. It is a statement from Kenya’s Chief of Defence Forces, Julius Karangi, trying to clarify Kenya’s incursion into Somalia as not being out to annex southern region, but rather as a mission hell-bent only on ‘degrading al-Shabaab capacity’. General Karangi furthered his statement on October 30th, 2011, saying, “We are pursuing legitimate al-Shabaab targets across the border”. A well-read script that few would say sounds original; if it was original, then it fails to put into context the American lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Russians in Chechnya, or even closer to home, that of the Ethiopian army in 2006, when they invaded Somalia to fight off the Islamic Court’s militias.

Let’s say that through the mission dubbed “Operation Linda Nchi” (Operation to Protect the Nation) that the Kenyan military generals and political arm have a well thought-out plan of how to ‘degrade al-Shabaab capacity’. Such an assumption is called into question by the additional information attributed to the Kenyan generals that the ongoing incursion in Somalia was not contemplated beforehand, but was arrived at within a span of ten days: “The operation was not pre-planned. It happened at the spur of the moment. There was no plan to enter Somalia, annex it. No self-respecting country would do so". From this clarification, one question comes into mind: how do you deploy a conventionally based military in the midst of one of the most complex crises in the world in the “spur of the moment”? If the Kenyan military general’s assertions are not propaganda, then what happens when you investigate the UN reports?

According to Kenyan columnist cum political economist, Billow Kerrow, in the 2010 report of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia, Kenya joined the war in Somalia on the side of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2009 when it recruited hundreds of Somalis to be trained in Kenya to fight Al-Shabaab. The group reported that some of the trainees, now assisting the army in the invasion, were Kenyan Somalis. Case-in-point is that Kenya had militarised its intervention in Somalia long before this latest incursion, when the Somalian Transitional Government and Ethiopian forces took Bula Haw months before the Kenyan incursion; the fight was lodged from Kenya’s Mandera region, with the Kenyan government’s tacit approval and support. Billow Kerrow argues that despite denials, “Kenya’s role as a peacemaker in Somalia ended more than two years ago, when she was unwittingly recruited by Ethiopia and the US as a combatant in a proxy war against terrorism”.

The Kenyan government has many faults, but there are unacceptable ones, as Kwendo Opanga notes, “Kenya’s government is uniquely talented at tying itself in knots. First, a minister explained that Kenya had not invaded Somalia. Secondly, they said that our (Kenya’s) military is not in Somalia at the invitation of the Transitional Government (TFG). Thirdly, the government says that having been invited into Somalia, Al-Shabaab cannot become our problem but remains the TFG’s. Lastly, the government says our military is not an occupying force. Listen, this is damned diplomatic drivel”. Kwendo Opanga, journalist and seasoned Kenyan political analyst, questions the flip-flopping of the Kenyan government after her incursion into Somalia. Opanga’s beef with the planners of the Kenyan incursion is for not having a well thought-out, common position to sell to the Kenyan public and the world regarding Kenya’s mission in Somalia. Opanga, like others who could not easily buy into the government propaganda, observed that Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki should have outlined to Kenyans the case for the incursion with justifications on the costs and benefits resulting from to the huge economic and social consequences, as, in all cases, wars are an expensive undertaking. Above all, Opanga observes: “why commit the nation’s economy to war now and not previously when armed groups crossed into Kenya and killed, maimed and looted and retreated to celebrate their success?”

As Kenya waits for their President to come forward on this matter, the Kenyan government, through Prime Minister Raila Odinga, and his Somalian counterpart Abdiweli Abdiweli have signed a pact. The November 1, 2011 joint communiqué, while pledging joint military, diplomatic and political support, held that Al-Shabaab was a “threat to both Somalia and Kenya, a common enemy, and that the Somalian government supports the activities of the Kenyan forces, which are being fully coordinated with the Mogadishu based government”. The ambitions and wishful part of the communiqué was its request for African Union forces to move into the ‘liberated areas’; a group that has not been able to deploy beyond Mogadishu, meaning that Kenya might have to act and behave like a liberator and occupy.

The Uniqueness of the Kenyan Incursion in Somalia

The only unique aspect to report about in this incursion is that the invading army is from a neighbour who has, in the last 20-years, advocated peaceful means and has resisted military engagement at all costs. A neighbour who has been accused of being the safe haven for some of the Al-Shabaab leaders triggering the debate back in Nairobi that Kenya might be pursuing the Al-Shabaab tail and not its head. This debate was triggered by Kenya’s Internal Security Assistant Minister, Joshua Orwa Ojodeh, while briefing the Kenyan Parliament at the onset of the incursion, who might have been thinking loudly when he said that the Al-Shabaab group has its head in Nairobi’s Eastleigh suburb and its tail across the border in lawless Somalia. Macharia Gaitho poses similar questions which remain unanswered: “somebody should explain why Kenyan soldiers are pursuing Al-Shabaab militants deep inside Somalia instead of taking out the nexus right here at home. Aren’t we in the process giving the head ample warning to take cover, and also the time to plot a deadly retaliation on innocent Kenyans?”

The ‘tail’ that the Kenyan incursion is after is the same one that has been strangling with difficulties the 9,000 African Union troops. If this is the case, how possible is it to ‘degrade Al-Shabaab capacity’ if the command and structure remain intact? Capturing countless strategic towns, even the much priced Kismayu, will be like Americans capturing Kabul or Kandahar in Afghanistan or the capture of Grozny by the Russians. In both cases, the threats still remain due to the evolving nature of insurgent, or terror, groups - whichever name suits you. Billow Kerrow notes that when Ethiopia overran Somalia in 2006 to do the same thing that Kenya is now doing, the militia group Al-Shabaab was then insignificant; two years later, “that invasion had helped Al-Shabaab recruit thousands more Somalis whose nationalist feelings were inflamed by indiscriminate attacks on civilians by the Ethiopians. In the two years, over 20,000 Somalis were dead, thousands more displaced and Al-Shabaab even stronger. Both the US and Ethiopia know only too well the folly of engaging militarily in Somalia”. The same can be said of the USSR and America when it comes to Afghanistan; each has its tales to tell, the only difference is the time.

Kenya says its incursion in Somalia invokes Article 5 of the UN Charter and the Kenyan constitution that gives Kenya the ‘right of self defence”. Kenyan media is trying to scratch the surface to know why Kenya decided to take on Al-Shabaab now. After all, this is not the first time that Al-Shabaab has caused mayhem on Kenyan territory; if anything, the Al-Shabaab threat has been growing with time. In the past, Al-Shabaab killed or captured Kenyans, not to mention the fact that they have crossed into Kenyan territory with impunity, with Kenya showing no desire to act on the grounds of self-defence. This could explain why the idea that the present incursion was triggered by the killings and kidnapping of foreign aid workers and tourists along the Kenyan Coast has to be portrayed as secondary, as that would be tantamount to treating fellow Kenyans as a secondary interest when it comes to Kenyan military priorities.

Kenya says its ‘right of self defence’ emanates from Al-Shabaab’s threats to Kenyan tourism as a result of killings and kidnappings of foreign nationals, and for training Kenyan youth deep in Somalia who are then sent back as terrorists to cause mayhem. The Kenyan incursion raises one fundamental question: is Al-Shabaab the problem, or is it the analyses that have come forth since Al-Shabaab became a credible threat?

Nene Mburu argues that Kenya’s incursion in Somalia is a strategic miscalculation, saying that despite the support that Kenya might get from America, “Kenya is ill-prepared for the security situation that will emerge, one being the driving forces of al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, particularly inside Kenya and Somalia and secondly, how to manage critical uncertainties in Jubaland and western Somalia”. Mburu, an ex-Kenyan army officer, makes a second argument based on the “uncertainties born of Somalia’s fragmentation since 1994 and the inability of the international society to predict future trends”. Mburu notes that the Kenyan invasion is only strategically limited to the geographical area of southern Somalia, an area that is seeking to secede and form an independent country of Jubaland or Azania, which could be a blessing in disguise to Kenya by acting as a buffer against Al-Shabaab. A Kenyan incursion could either act as a catalyst for this evolving fragmentation, or it could see Kenya getting entangled with an unexpected enemy should Kenya try to forestall this Jubaland or Azania strategic move against unification, which Kenya, like other regional countries, holds on to, but which increasingly looks like a pipe dream.

Complexity of Strangling the Al-Shabaab ‘Lifeline’

al-Shabaab logo

Media reports indicate that the Kenyan incursion fireworks could be the fight for the soul of the Kismayu port. With the help of the Kenyan military and Al-Shabaab chest thumping, perception has been created that the Kenyan operation in Somalia might reach its climax with the ‘liberation’ of Kismayu. Filtering reports indicate that Al-Shabaab have armed the local residents, not by will but by force, so that they can defend what Kenyan military and other NGOs have portrayed as an Al-Shabaab strategic town; its economic lifeline. The narrative reportage from Fatuma Ali in Somalia’s local paper appearing in Kenya’s Daily Nation reads: “They have put their weapons over us. Every high house in the city is a defence for Al-Shabaab. Since Kenya mentioned the ten towns it was targeting, Al-Shabaab has been readying all their weapons and small arms”. A second resident, whose voice has not been muffled by the media, is Amina Mahmoud who says, “They gave arms to people and they’re telling them to stay and defend the country from foreigners. Every one of you who dies is a mujiahid and will enter paradise”. The media cannot be accused of only bad things; the incursion has enabled the Kenyan media to infiltrate areas once held by Al-Shabaab and now liberated by Kenya. In the process, the victims of Somalia’s conflict are finally speaking. A resident of Dobley town, while narrating experiences under Al-Shabaab says that women were being forced to marry Al-Shabaab fighters or else they would be beheaded. A victim in this case, Major Mohammed, says that Al-Shabaab perfected the art of looting from the public: “They are stealing from civilians and telling them they need the items to fight a holy war”.

According to a recent United Nations report, it is estimated that Al-Shabaab earns $50 million a year in port fees and $60 million in business taxes. Most of these earnings, according to the report, are earned from port fees, illegal smuggling of sugar and other commodities into Kenya, and the export of charcoal. In addition, Al-Shabaab also levies fees from road checkpoints, human trafficking and gun runners across the areas it controls in Somalia. This explains why Kismayu and two secondary ports are such prized targets for the Kenyan mission in southern Somalia. Reports from Al-Shabaab-controlled areas indicate that the militias are preventing residents from fleeing Kismayu and nine other towns being targeted by the Kenyan forces. If these reports are true, this could complicate Kenyan military strategies that depend on conventional strategies, which have a high risk of causing civilian casualties. In media reports, mainly highlighting the negatives of Al-Shabaab and in favour of the Kenyan incursion to liberate the Somalis from Al-Shabaab tyranny, quoting local residents, “They’ve refused to let us out, and we don’t have any money to leave. Some people are trying to flee but the heavy rain is not giving them a chance.” It is worth asking, apart from planning a military assault, did the planners of the Kenyan mission contemplate how to rescue or aid residents who might be fleeing? We all know that all military strategies, despite their good intentions, do disrupt lives. If such questions were not thought out well in advance, then expect a backlash from the local residents who, in the last 20-yaers of protracted conflict, have endured being pitched against both local and foreign war machines.

If there is no Frontline, is the Kenyan Military Winning or Entangling Itself?

On the road to capture Kismayu, Kenya claims (November 3rd 2011) to have killed 18 suspected Al-Shabaab militants aboard a small boat transporting fuel to Kuday Town. In the reports appearing in the Kenyan press, Kenya military spokesman, Major Emmanuel Chirchir says the boat was removed by the Kenyan navy as part of a military effort to pacify the grounds before the capture of Kismayu. Kenya, like all other occupying forces, has banned aircraft from landing at Baidoa, on the grounds that the airstrip was used to ship-in three consignments of weapons on November 1st and 2nd, 2011 from Eretria: “On two occasions, Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) have observed an aircraft overflying our troops in the three sectors. The owners of the aircraft are hereby warned that KDF considers this a security violation. Further, unauthorised flying over said region will be considered a threat. Anyone violating this will be doing so at their peril”. The country being accused of being sympathetic to the Al-Shabaab course is Eritrea, something it has denied. Al-Shabaab responded by threatening to shoot down any aircraft flying over Southern Somalia.

In the view of Roger Trinquier in the book Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency, a terrorist should not be considered an ordinary criminal, as he fights within the framework of his organisation, without personal interest, for a cause he considers noble and for a respectable ideal, the same as the soldiers in the armies confronting him. The soldier and the terrorist all have one thing in common; that of accepting the possibility of physical pain as part of the job. The risk they all run in the battle field and sufferings endured as the price of the glory. Roger Trinquier observes that terrorist or insurgent victims cannot defend themselves in open warfare. The army, on the other hand, cannot fire its power against the perceived terrorist stronghold because the soldier knows too well that the targeted terrorist or insurgent hides himself in the midst of a population going about its peaceful pursuits. The above brief from Roger Trinquier explains why the Kenyan incursion has missed the frontline that the media relishes so much. Media, by nature, likes the spark in any conflict, but the conventional military strategies have now denied the media that pleasure. That is why even the Kenyan journalists in southern Somalia have opted to talk to local residents rather than filing stories about the frontline battles they were assigned to follow. Secondly, this is why the Kenyan incursion has covered so many miles in just a few days without much resistance, despite creating the perception southern Somalia is Al-Shabaab territory.

Now weeks into the incursion, the Kenyan military has yet to meet credible resistance from the Al-Shabaab militias for whom they went to hunt inside Somali territory. By November 3rd, 2011 the Kenyan troops backed by TFG fighters are said to have cleared or taken control of Elwak, Beled-hawo and Garbaharey towns. In addition, TFG military official, Osman Sheikh Abdi, says that Somalia’s TFG troops fighting alongside the Kenyan army are in control of Al-Shabaab bases in Gadon-dawe, Khadijo-Hajji, El-Adde and El-Gudud without firing a single shot. As with other insurgent groups, Al-Shabaab has warned the Kenyan military to prepare for a protracted, intense battle. Through the group website, its warning reads, “The Al-Shabaab mujahidin will defend Somalia, and will put Kenya into an endless war. We will defeat you like other major countries have suffered when they attacked Somalia; you will see the consequences”.

Al-Shabaab as an Enemy of the Process of Development and Humanitarian Aid

Since June 2011 with the onset of this phase of Somalia’s tragic drought and famine, which has claimed the lives of thousands and counting, the overplayed narrative by the humanitarian agencies through the media is that Al-Shabaab has, through their policies, compounded the southern Somalia famine situation. This statement is valid, but only if all the elements are factored in properly and then analysed. It is based on this notion that the Kenyan military would like to be perceived as liberators should they succeed in ‘crushing’ Al-Shabaab, since then, meaningful development and humanitarian aid will flow into southern Somalia’s areas hit hardest by famine. A majority of Kenyans from members of Parliament to the general public has, since the onset of Kenya’s incursion, expressed sentiments to the effect that the mission is in the best interest of Kenya as well as Somalia’s southern region, as they will finally be liberated.

To those in support of the Kenyan incursion, they will tell you that it’s a double edged mission: a self defence mission that Kenya was compelled to take against Al-Shabaab’s miscalculation and of helping the Somali people get rid of a menace that has exacerbated the famine situation. Al-Shabaab has now threatened to export its open hostility with Kenya right into Kenya itself, according to press reports by The StandardIn this debate, the complexity of the Somalia crisis and the extent to which Kenya could get entangled in the conflict or trigger resentment from Kenyan-Somalia communities is completely muffled, if not lost entirely. But history tells us that in time of war such views do get a chance to filtrate though; however, by then, turning around is tricky, as it sounds like surrendering to defeat as Americans would tell you after the Black Hawk fiasco back in 1990.

Kenyan Military Justifications: Civilian Casualties as By-Product of War

Why should the Kenyan public be caught up in this quagmire? David Keen puts forth the idea that, “the view of war as an incomprehensible other is often reinforced when human rights reports or NGOs or journalists concentrate on condemning violence rather than explaining it”. In the case of Somalia, it is better if the media would attempt to the let the public know that all the parties to the conflict have outstanding differences and that all belong to Somalia, and that the only distinct difference is the way in which each expresses its grievances or advances them. In this case, portraying the conflict as one between two parties, the good and the bad, is tantamount to misrepresentation, with the end product being the impression that any force can and should be unleashed within Somali territory if that mission is to rescue her people. In this way, the action of American troops in the 1990s, Ethiopian troops in 2006, the African Union onslaught against Al-Shabaab from Mogadishu region, and now the Kenyan incursion into the southern region are acceptable as they are hell-bent on enforcing peace.

Exemplifying the familiar justification or denial taking shape in this incursion, on October 31st, Kenyan military and relief agencies had conflicting accounts of a bombing raid by Kenya Air Force units deep inside Somalia. Press reports quoted Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF) saying that three people had been killed by the raids and that it was treating dozens of others, 52 in numbers, and mostly women and children. The Kenyan military says its raid on Lower Juba region only targeted an Al-Shabaab training centre killing ten of them and seriously wounding 47 others. It seems that Kenyan weapons have the ability to discriminate if not to segregate.

Yes, it possible that waging war can bring peace, but when it is employed within a complex crisis context, as the case with Somalia, its by-products have been quite the opposite in the past. In the book Complex Emergencies (p.13), those caught up in the crossfire, irrespective of their casualty numbers are presented or explained as by-products of war. This sort of presentation is only intended to satisfy one thing -- the media’s tendency of perceiving war or conflict like a sports event where there are winners and losers. David Keen, himself a veteran journalist, has a list for media predisposition: who is going to win? What are the tactics? Who is it between? Lost completely within these semantics, as Keen would tell you, are the real issues behind the conflict.

Is the Kenya Incursion Camouflaging a Larger Interest?

There are those who hold both strategic and direct interest when it comes to Somalia, and those actors will go to great lengths to protect their interests. Let us sample some of those who are far removed from the epicentre of this conflict. According to Michel Chossudovsky, documents obtained by The Times shed some light on who among the international community has a big stake in Somalia. The Times, back in July 2011, reported that nearly two-thirds of Somalia was allocated to the American oil giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips in the final years before Somalia’s pro-US President Siad Barre was overthrown and the nation plunged into chaos since 1991. In their view, far beneath the surface of the tragic drama of Somalia’s famine, four major U.S oil companies are quietly sitting on a prospective fortune in exclusive concessions to explore for oil.

In an effort to make sense out of Michel Chossudovsky’s findings, one needs to pay attention to David Keen when he says that, “rather than portraying the war as fundamentally irrational or as an aberration or interruption, it would be more helpful to investigate how violence is generated by a particular pattern of development, by particular economics which violence in turn modifies but does not destroy”. Further, Keen says that the problem with the prevailing analyses of conflict is the notion that any breakdown within a system can also create avenues for exploitation and that “however horrible and catastrophic events are actually produced or made to happen by a diverse and complicated set of actors who may do well achieving their objectives in the middle of a crisis. As the Kenyan incursion drags along, the evolving nature of the Somalia crisis might provide some answers as to why Kenya decided to get entangled. This might not be as forthcoming as many might want them to be.

Kenyan Incursion: No Winners, but Losers

In the coming days, the dilemma for the Kenyan incursion will be how to justify civilian casualties when it will be impossible to cover them up. This is the point when the military considers the media a nuisance, when military propaganda fails to satisfy the media. In this case, the best and most qualified military spokesman will be assembled and, if needed, recalled from deployment. News from the frontlines, which this incursion is craving and hopefully will get during the capture of Kismayu, will be a major turning point; and a second frontline will be maintaining Kenyan public support, which the Kenyan President will have to bring forward, as the commander-in-chief will have some explaining to do. The challenges will be how to justify the cost-benefit analysis from losses in terms of soldiers to the financial implications in these hard economic times. This will be gauged in the coming days by the same media singing the praises of the incursion if Kenya had opted to protect her borders, sea routes, and tourist installation as the starting point. But now that the second option has been emphasised, Kenya has to do what is expected or else learn its lesson the hard way like the Americans, that no matter how powerful or organised as a military or a state you might be against your perceived enemy, it is the prudent use of your advantages that helps one achieve his or her objectives, and not an open confrontation based on the desire to punish, crush or destroy your enemy. More so, if the enemy you are against has nothing to lose and is not operating within a time frame, their resources are not dependent on an accounting system, nor do they fear death, as to them, death is their prized target, and when it comes to you, death or maiming of your human resources is what you seek to minimize if not to eliminate at all cost. In other words, Kenyan military weaknesses are the dependable points for Al-Shabaab. In simple terms, the Kenyan incursion in Somalia is an inversely proportional warfare, with losers, but no winners.


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Patrick Mugo Mugo is a Multimedia Senior Researcher from Kenya and a masters student in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies at UN-mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica.