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Somalia’s Dangerous Impasse
Somalia’s Dangerous Impasse
Report 184 / Africa

The Kenyan Military Intervention in Somalia

As Kenya advances into southern Somalia, it must act cautiously and avoid prolonged “occupation”, lest it turn local opinion against the operation and galvanise opposition Al-Shabaab can co-opt, much as happened to Ethiopia in 2006-2009.

Executive Summary

The decision in October 2011 to deploy thousands of troops in Somalia’s Juba Valley to wage war on Al-Shabaab is the biggest security gamble Kenya has taken since independence, a radical departure for a country that has never sent its soldiers abroad to fight. Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country) was given the go-ahead with what has shown itself to be inadequate political, diplomatic and military preparation; the potential for getting bogged down is high; the risks of an Al-Shabaab retaliatory terror campaign are real; and the prospects for a viable, extremist-free and stable polity emerging in the Juba Valley are slim. The government is unlikely to heed any calls for a troop pullout: it has invested too much, and pride is at stake. Financial and logistical pressures will ease once its force becomes part of the African Union (AU) mission in Somalia (AMISOM). But it should avoid prolonged “occupation” of southern Somalia, lest it turn local Somali opinion against the intervention and galvanise an armed resistance that could be co-opted by Al-Shabaab, much as happened to Ethiopia during its 2006-2009 intervention.

The intervention was hastily approved, after a string of cross-border kidnappings, by a small group without sufficient consideration of the consequences, at home as well as in Somalia. Military leaders were apparently convinced it would be a quick campaign, but the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) promptly ran into difficulties on the unfamiliar terrain. Somali allies failed to deliver and began squabbling, while Al-Shabaab, rather than confront Kenyan tanks and armoured personnel carriers head-on, predictably reverted to guerrilla warfare – something the KDF was poorly trained and equipped to fight. Irrespective of whether its troops are “rehatted” into AMISOM, there is a real prospect Kenya will find itself with undependable allies, enmeshed in a protracted counter-insurgency campaign against a resilient and experienced enemy.

The involvement in Somalia was partly motivated by a desire to inoculate North Eastern Province from the chaos across its border, ease a huge refugee burden and curtail the radical influence of Al-Shabaab, but the unintended consequences may prove destabilising. The venture could reopen old wounds, foment new inter-clan discord, radicalise Kenyan Somalis and undermine recent social, economic and political advances. The North Eastern Province is now the soft underbelly in the war against Al-Shabaab. New evidence suggests the radical Islamist movement is intent on destabilising the province, and part of its strategy is to outflank the KDF and wage a low-intensity guerrilla campaign there and in other areas behind Kenyan lines. A string of deadly grenade attacks in Garissa and elsewhere, initially dismissed as the work of local malcontents, now is seen to have a pattern. Most of the venues targeted have been bars frequented by government and security officials and poorly-defended government outposts.

Furthermore, the intervention taps into deep-seated Kenyan fears of Somali encroachment and corresponding Somali qualms that Kenya seeks to assert control over territory that was once part of colonial Kenya. Al-Shabaab is trying to exploit Kenyan-Somali grievances against Nairobi and making pan-Somali appeals, although without much apparent success to date. For Kenya’s venture to have a positive outcome, its leadership will need to define its goals and exit strategy more clearly, as well as work effectively with international partners to facilitate reconciliation and the development of effective local government mechanisms in the areas of Somalia where its forces are active, as part of a larger commitment to ending Somalia’s conflicts and restoring stability to the region.

While this briefing is an independent treatment of the Kenyan intervention in Somalia, some elements, in particular issues related to Al-Shabaab, Kenyan Somalis, and North Eastern Province, have also been discussed in earlier Crisis Group reporting, most recently the briefing Kenyan Somali Islamist Radicalisation (25 January 2012). Crisis Group will publish shortly a briefing on the wider issues involved in restoring peace to Somalia.

Nairobi/Brussels, 15 February 2012

Podcast / Africa

Somalia’s Dangerous Impasse

This week on The Horn, Alan Boswell is joined by Mohamed Mubarak, a political and security analyst, to talk about the ongoing political crisis in Somalia, fighting in Mogadishu, and the long-term implications of the current impasse.

Tensions have been rising in Somalia since President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” failed to hold elections in February. After Farmajo moved to extend his term by two years, the ongoing political crisis triggered clashes between security forces loyal to the president and the opposition in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. This turn of events forced President Farmajo to backtrack, says political and security analyst Mohamed Mubarak, but inherent lack of trust among stakeholders means the dispute continues. 

Mohamed says the crisis proves Somalia doesn’t really have a national army, as clans still hold the most sway. Despite these challenges, there is no political will to make much-needed changes to Somalia’s broader federal structure. He tells Alan that Somalia, pressured by the international community, has focused on anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations, setting aside fundamental security issues and institution building. They also discuss why Al-Shabaab may be winning the battle for legitimacy, the barriers to seeking any political settlement with the group, the risk of civil war should the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) soon withdraw, and where Somalia’s state-building project should go from here. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

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Contributors

Senior Analyst, South Sudan
alanboswell
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Mohamed Mubarak
Political and security analyst