Kenya’s innocence hanging on a thread?
Commentary by Nuradin Dirie on Kenya’s invasion in Somalia
20 October 2011.
There is a Somali proverb that says ‘If you are going to hell, better be fully submerged in it’. For the first time since the collapse of the Somali State, Kenya is militarily intervening in neighbouring Somalia. It is also the first experience of Kenyan military of any war save some internal security operations, United Nations peace keeping functions and numerous war simulation exercises.
For the last 48 years of its creation, Kenya turned out to be a lot smarter than its neighbours because it managed to stay peaceful in a very unstable region. It succeeded to present a smooth face in the midst of a very rough neighbourhood. It successfully saved itself from a long list of wars that engulfed the region such as wars between; Uganda-Tanzania, Ethiopia-Eretria, Ethiopia-Somalia, and Chad-Sudan. Kenya also protected itself from overspills of rich internal civil strives and crises that East Africa was cursed with in the last 4 decades. From Ugandan bush wars to the conflicts in the great lakes; the continuing war against Lord’s resistance army to the crises in the democratic republic of Congo. Let us also not forget the Ethiopian civil wars, Rwandan ethnic cleansing, multiple hostilities in Sudan and massacres in Burundi.
Why is then Kenya giving up on that sound policy which worked for them so well in the past? Why would they want to interfere in the most complex and most intractable conflict of all on the eastern side of its border? Why would they want to possibly break the international law as well as their own constitution by invading Somalia without prior agreement with the Transitional Federal Government and without their own parliamentary approval or local support? Why would they want to anger a lot of Somalis who have a lot of affinity for Kenya and possibly breathe a life to the dying hated militant groups?
Well, the official reason is to respond to kidnapped tourists and humanitarian aid workers by Al Shabab group in Somalia. But that does not sound credible because this is not the first but simply the last of a series of kidnappings and hostage-takings from Kenya by Somali armed groups. Worst things have happened over the last 20 years including repeated armed incursions into Kenyan territories by successive Somali warlords, rebels and militant groups. Back in 2006 for example, a plane load of Somali militants armed to the teeth have wondered into Jomo Kenyatta International Airports in the capital causing a huge security scare. As ever, Kenyan Authorities just found a way of getting rid of them ensuring that no further wondering to airports takes place. They were always skilful in protecting themselves whatever the complications, but are they losing their marbles this time?
Perhaps that was the problem. This lean understandable approach did not work with Somali trouble makers. Perhaps this was the last straw and Kenya could not standby anymore. That is where the Somali proverb we started with comes in handy. Being fully prepared for all intended and unintended consequences that, hell can throw at you.
What might help Kenya is that the Al Shabab group are today at their weakest point. They badly lost in Mogadishu and they are marred by internal strive linked to global leadership crises of Al Qaeda itself. Local Somali forces opposed to Al Shabab are with Kenyans as well as some ‘interested’ and ‘ever so helpful’ global partners. More importantly the sentiment of the Somali people are such that they want something, anything, that will make Al Shabab disappear.
No doubt, time is on their side. So too is geography and nature. It is the rainy season in the muddy fields of the Jubba regions and Al Shabab Technicals are stuck in the mud. With no heavy equipments or military engineering corps, they could just as well be sitting ducks. If there is no blunder on the ‘Allied’ forces side, it is not difficult to imagine face to face military victory for Kenyans and company.
But the most important question of all is whether history will be on their side too? Fighting and winning a conventional war is one thing, and conducting a counter insurgency is quite another. “Why counter insurgency?” you might ask. If the recent history of Somalia is anything to go by, that is exactly what it might turn into. Several countries have tried it in Somalia before and left the country and the region more dangerous than they first found it.
Most experts will tell you that an insurgency cannot be defeated by attrition. They can always find fighters and leadership. Al Shabab’s name which translates to ‘the Youth’ is quite symbolic because more than 75% of Somalia’s population are under the age of 25.
Moreover, the complex combinations of insurgency and clans in Somalia make mockery of the laws of mathematics itself. Normally if you kill 10 insurgents from a group of 20 you have 10 more to go. But in Somalia, the fallen 10 probably are related to 10 clans and 25 sub-sub clans all of which want revenge. So the killing of 10 in this case means there are 250 more to go.
From history we learn that successful counter insurgency operations need a lot of time and a lot of resources. It focuses on people and it is a battle of ideas. Kenya has limited counter insurgency experience in Mount Elgon and District of Mandera and both were tainted with human rights violations. They obviously don’t have enough resources either. So what then?
Maybe Kenya wants to quickly get in, smash Al Shabab and quickly get out and leave the mess for Somalis to battle it out. For one thing, the mess is right next door and unless there is an unprecedented geological phenomenon, Somalia and Kenya will remain conjoined. For another, Kenya has lost its innocence now in Somalia and as we have already heard from militants groups, Kenya is now fully part of the conflict. Groups that until recently tried to avoid open confrontation with Kenya are now calling for jihad against Kenya and is urging their supporters to target Kenyan interests.
Somalia needs a lot of help for a long time to regain its statehood in order to effectively deal with its security and play its part in ensuring the security of the region. Kenya’s interest lies in stabilising Somalia within the parameters of respecting the territorial integrity, the unity and political independence of Somalia. That requires a long term commitment of working with Somali authorities and Somali people. It does not require short cuts or knee-jerk reactions that ignore the lessons of history. Over the last 20 years, Kenya has largely played a positive role in Somalia. It also kept a level of innocence which was unique in the region. Hopefully such valuable innocence will not be lost.