Kenya Shouldn't Fight Al-Shabaab
Kenya Shouldn't Fight Al-Shabaab
Ruto in Washington: Kenya’s State Visit and the U.S.’s Africa Policy
Ruto in Washington: Kenya’s State Visit and the U.S.’s Africa Policy
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Kenya Shouldn't Fight Al-Shabaab

Kenyan media have been abuzz in recent days with speculation Nairobi and its allies in the region could be planning a military operation to prop up the fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu, under siege from militant Islamist factions led by Al-Shabaab. Official rhetoric against the Somali Islamists has been hardening: Nairobi increasingly fears the TFG could collapse unless the international community provides it with additional troops to hold its ground.

The deadly suicide bombing in Beledweyne that killed the TFG's security minister, Omar Hashi - a key figure in the regime's military counteroffensive against Al-Shabaab - came as another shocking reminder of the group's deadly capacity to undermine the interim government. In a sense, the TFG is fighting for its very survival. Resurgent militant Islamist groups are clearly bent on overthrowing the current regime. President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has imposed a state of emergency to deal with these threats.

Despite the gravity of the current situation, the calls for foreign military intervention in Somalia are ill-advised. The TFG and its supporters have circulated dire warnings of a high number of foreign jihadi combatants in order to create panic about Somalia being on the verge of becoming another Afghanistan, the new den of international Al-Qaeda militants. This threat is supposed to also justify a foreign intervention.

Under Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the former leader of the Islamic Courts Union who was elected President last February, the TFG has regained some legitimacy and holds potentially valuable keys to a political settlement. It is more representative of Central and Southern Somalia's populations and can probably articulate an Islamic vision for Somalia which will rally the support of its majority, contrary to the jihadist whose practice of Islam is foreign to the country. Yet, external military intervention is not the way forward.

Since the collapse of Siad Barre's regime in 1991, there have been several, all of which have failed to pacify this troubled country. In fact, every single foreign intervention in Somalia exacerbated the conflict by increasing radicalisation and political polarisation. They reduced chances for political dialogue and help militant groups to recruit. Al-Shabaab has grown in strength over the last two years largely because it effectively used Ethiopia's intervention and the US bombing campaign to whip nationalism and rally the clans around its banner.

A Kenyan intervention force -- alone or as part of a force by the regional Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) -- would only lead to the same result. In fact, Al-Shabaab, currently under siege politically, desperately wants such an intervention for those very reasons. The movement may be militarily triumphant, but its political message is increasingly challenged in south and central Somalia. Militant Islamist factions in Somalia are taunting Kenya into a military intervention in the same way they taunted Ethiopia in 2006. Kenya should be wary of falling into the same trap.

Another possible threat which Kenya needs to weigh is the direct security implications stemming from such an intervention. Al-Shabaab's threat to strike Kenya, which many may have reasonably dismissed as bravado, may become real. Al-Shabaab has certainly horned its terror tactics and skills in recent years and is now by far the deadliest guerilla movement operating in the Horn. Kenya should not get sucked into the Somalia conflict but concentrate on securing its borders and actively supporting its resolution.

What is needed today is more international investment in the political process aimed at re-orienting and broadening the UN-sponsored reconciliation efforts known as the "Djibouti process" to ensure as many militants and radicals as possible are reached and the necessary concessions made to ensure their buy-in. Peace will have to be made between Somalia's bitter enemies, reaching out to moderates is not enough. This will be difficult, but it is not altogether impossible as some suggest, and many channels of communication transit through Nairobi.

In the short run, rather than direct military intervention, efforts should concentrate on bolstering the TFG's military capacity through additional training, funding and the provision of new military equipment as part of an overall strategy to restore the balance of forces conducive to political negotiations. The African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) should not become a direct party to the fighting but should only be used to secure the strategic points essential to the TFG reinforcement.. The TFG must be enabled to fight its own fight. This is what many Somali officials actually believe will be effective. But no foreign army should fight Somalis' war and become a new party to this already dramatic enough conflict.

Nairobi's traditional pragmatist tendencies and the practice of using dialogue to resolve problems have not lost their currency. In fact, despite the belligerent tone of some official declarations, provincial and local administration leaders are engaged with Al-Shabaab in a dialogue to resolve the problems of banditry, armed car-jacking and inter-clan tensions along Kenya's long border with Somalia, and they have effectively succeeded in managing the situation over the past year.

Now is not the time to beat the drums of a new regional invasion of Somalia but to invest in the political process that will provide an end to its decade long conflict.

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