Why Kenya is not making any strides in the war against Al Shabaab two months into incursion

Saturday December 10 2011

Kenya Defence Forces say they are conducting an offensive, defensive and humanitarian operation in Somalia and that the long term goal remains the same but at the tactical level they change now and then. Picture: File

The Kenyan Defence Forces in Somalia have not made any significant territorial progress over the past one month, but the military publicity department is not ready to reveal that they have stalled because of factors beyond their control — a situation that has left Nairobi rethinking its approach to the incursion against the Al Shabaab militia.

The force on the southern front that entered Somalia through Kiunga is stuck in Burgabo, 60km from the Kenyan border, where they will have to cross a deep creek. The only advance being realised is on the central front, that recently took Bilis Qooqaani and is preparing to take Afmadow. The two teams are eventually meant to meet in Kismayu.

Investigations by The East-African have revealed that a number of logistical and political issues have forced the KDF to go slow contrary to the initial plan for a swift operation.

There are four major factors that have bogged down the military campaign. They are: Lack of finances to run a long-drawn war; the differences between interested parties over whether to divide Somalia into autonomous regions or maintain one united country; differences over the option to engage Al Shabaab in a political dialogue, and the ambivalence of Somalia’s President Sheikh Shariff Ahmed.

Already, the Kenya public and the politicians have started questioning whether the Kenyan involvement in Somalia is likely to last longer than was initially intended.

However, Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) spokesperson Maj Emmanuel Chirchir maintained that the reason the Kenyan advance has slowed down is because they are combining the offensive angle with humanitarian operations. “When we started the operation we had the offensive, defensive and humanitarian operations components. At the strategic level, the long term goal still remains but at the tactical level, things have to change every now and then because you are dealing with human beings,” he said.
Still, Kenya has support around the world for entering Somalia. Experts on Somalia argue that it would be a disaster if Kenya came out of Somalia with egg on its face or without substantially crippling Al Shabaab, as this would embolden the militia group to such an extent that the international community would not be able to deal with.


The importance of Kenya’s intervention has been recognised by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who last week said in Nairobi that Kenya’s leadership role in efforts to stabilise Somalia, has presented an opportunity to the people of Somalia to realise stability and prosperity after 20 years of civil war.

The Kenya government has secured moral and political support from various nations and organisations including the Commonwealth, the AU, the EU, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, the EAC, the ACP and Comesa.

But the war is not as simple as Kenyans were made to believe when the military entered Somalia in October. For a start, Kenya was not prepared for a long-drawn-out war, and is already finding its resources stretched. To maintain two infantry fronts, navy and fighter jets on the ground for this long is proving to be a major financial strain and sources revealed that Kenya has been reaching out to the United States and other Western allies for help.

It is estimated that it costs Ksh210 million ($233,000) per month to keep the soldiers in the battlefield. This amount comprises the cost of moving the troops and supplying them with food and water, communication and medical care.

That is part of the reason why the government last Wednesday sought the approval of parliament (and got it) to allow Kenyan forces to be placed under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) — to offset costs.

In parliament, a number of MPs questioned the country’s war strategy in Somalia, with others calling for a short war. Kenya’s military has no experience in counter-insurgency, and the country needs logistic support from its allies. Al Shabaab is fighting a classic guerrilla war by melting into the civilian population and forcing the KDF to fight on its terms. The United States is providing Kenya with satellite images of real time movements of Shabaab and deploying drones, but the militia’s tactics remains a challenge for a conventional army.

Part of the reason why the Ethiopians overcame the Union of Islamic Courts in two weeks in 2006 is because of a superior air force, especially helicopter gunships.

The second reason for the slow progress by the KDF is the differences among interested parties over whether to maintain a united Somalia with power concentrated in the centre or split the country into various autonomous regions. These interested parties include Kenya, Ethiopia, the TFG, a number of Western countries led by US, and the Somali people.

Kenya is proposing the division of Somalia into eight autonomous regions: Central region or Hiran; Somaliland; Puntland; Bay Bakool; Jubaland; Shabelle; Gedo and Mogadishu, commonly known as Banadir.

Sources revealed that the proposal involves various regions governing themselves but maintaining strong contact with the centre through a rotational presidency. However, President Shariff, who comes from Johar near Mogadishu, is strongly opposed to the idea of autonomous regions.

Currently, there are three autonomous regions — Somaliland, Puntland and the central region of Galmudug, commonly known as Hiran. Unlike the secessionist Somaliland region in northwestern Somalia, Galmudug, is not trying to get international recognition as a separate nation. It considers itself an autonomous state within the larger federal republic of Somalia. Galmudug was established on August 14, 2006 and Mohamed Warsame Ali “Kiimiko” was elected president.

Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula refused to be drawn into discussing the progress of the war. He also denied that Kenya is seeking to divide Somalia into autonomous regions, but argued that the Somalia Transitional Charter that created TFG says that Somalia shall be a federal government, but leaves how to go about it to the Somali people.

“If it is the process that will bring peace to Somalia, then Kenya will support it. But we want it to be Somalia-driven, not Kenya-driven,” he said.

Rashid Abdi, a specialist on Somalia with the International Crisis Group, noted that the international community has not yet learned the lesson that re-establishing a European-style centralised state based in Mogadishu is almost certain to fail, because for most Somalis, their only experience with the central government is that of predation.

“Since Independence, one clan, or group of clans, has always used its control of the centre to grab most of the resources and deny them to rival clans. Thus, whenever a new transitional government is created, Somalis are naturally wary and give it limited, or no support, fearing it will only be used to dominate and marginalise them,” he said.

Amisom spokesperson Paddy Asnkunda, told The EastAfrican that the peace process is expected to produce peaceful federated states, working more or less autonomously with a central authority in Mogadishu. He, however, maintained that the Somali political dialogue can go on even without the participation of Al Shabaab because, as he put it, “They have no support among the people and that’s what matters. They have lost political legitimacy by killing innocents.”

Autonomous regions aside, the focus is shifting to President Sheikh Shariff Ahmed and his role in the conduct of the war. After what appeared to be a misunderstanding in the early stages when he questioned Kenya’s intentions in Somalia, it is now emerging that Sheikh Shariff is a strong believer in Wahhabism, which is close to the Al Shabaab philosophy.

He is associated with the Salafi group that believes strongly in Sharia law. His kitchen Cabinet, called Al Sheikh, are mostly hardline Islamists, who blame him for appearing moderate. This group believes that the Djibouti agreement that brought together hardliners and secularists, is watering down the tenets of Islam.

While he remains ambivalent over the Kenya intervention, the TFG’s official mandate ends in August next year without initiating the expected Somalia national political dialogue. The concern for Kenya is that given the divisive politics and the short timeframe, it is unlikely the TFG will deliver significant progress on key transitional objectives, such as stabilising Somalia and delivering a permanent constitution.

That is why Kenya is looking at alternative ways of pacifying Somalia by trying to persuade the international community to concentrate its support on the more effective local entities, until a more appropriate and effective national government is negotiated.