By Ooko Victor
On Sunday 16th October 2011, the Kenya Defense Forces followed through on the Government of Kenya’s move to invoke Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, marching over 3000 troops into Somalia in the military offensive dubbed Operation Linda Nchi. Article 51, of the UN Charter, recognises members states right to self-defence as a justification for the invasion of another state. The move had followed a spate of attacks and kidnappings of citizens, aid workers and tourists from within Kenyan borders by the Al Shabaab. As a result, foreign nations had moved to issue travel advisories and the more than $750 Million Kenyan tourism industry faced with uncertainty. The march on Juba was underway, and Kenya’s largely inexperienced military set to face its first real cross-border operation.
It is now more than 5 years since the Somalia incursion. Whereas there was the initial indication of progress by the KDF and later the Amisom troops, the Al Shabaab have severally bounced back to launch counter-offensive operations with deadly precision both in Kenya and within Somalia. Among tragic ‘revenge attacks’ by the Al Shabaab against Kenyan civilians were the Mpeketoni Attacks in Lamu County, West Gate Mall Attacks in Nairobi, the Garissa University Attack and the various attacks targeting non-Muslim teachers and quarry workers in Mandera. There were also grenade attacks launched in bus stations and on mobile buses that have since died down. The latest strategy by the Al Shabaab is focused on the ground forces with attacks in El Adde and most recently Kulbiyow the most devastating yet. And with more and more coffins finding their way back to Kenyan homes, we cannot help but ask ourselves at what cost?
Has Kenya realised its objectives?
The first objective of Operation Linda Nchi was to safeguard the country against attacks by the Al Shabaab. In doing this, the Kenyan government hoped to provide assurances to the West and salvage the lucrative tourism industry which pumps in a great chunk of revenue into the economy. It would be fair to acknowledge the relative stability that is currently prevalent in the country. This, however, has not been without incident with recent attacks in Mandera targeting quarry workers and a group of young thespians, all of the non-Muslim faith. In addition to that, recent attacks targeting Electoral officials and materials have created cause for alarm. Important to note however, is that all these attacks have happened in North Eastern region bordering the Somalia.Hardly any attacks have been reported in other parts of the country. The military and police can do much more to flush out these elements existing within our borders and restore normalcy to the North Eastern Region as is the case in the rest of the country.
The second objective which was to restore order under a legitimate Juba government and the military has also seen its fair share of mixed fortunes. Whereas the KDF collaboration with Somalia forces saw them recapture large parts of the country from the Al Shabaab, including Kismayu, recent attacks against the KDF and Amisom forces attest to a resurgent movement adapting to an increasingly hostile and well-equipped opponent. It also points to local clans non-cooperation or outright support of the Al Shabaab in initiating a counter-offensive.
The Al Shabaab has severally used guerrilla tactics, coming out only to launch severe attacks on isolated military camps, specialising on finding their opponents ill prepared and overwhelming them with massive numbers of insurgents. During the El Adde attack and more recently the Kulbiyow attack on the KDF, the Al Shabaab used identical offensive strategies. Both attacks began in the wee hours of the morning, probably to catch the KDF at their most exhausted moment when all hopes of a night long attack have dissipated. The first move is usually either to jam communication signal or to destroy the local communication network towers prior to the attacks so as to hamper communications that may facilitate a backup to the ground troops. This is followed with Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices and suicide bombers who wipe out large numbers of rival forces and further confuses any meaningful defence mounted by the forces, before a wave of attackers land in to eliminate survivors and any other remaining boots on the ground.
The El Adde attack proved most fatal due to the slow response from the command base. With no Helicopters to repulse the insurgents from the air and an already weakened force on the ground, the troops were left with little else to do rather than to fight to stay alive for as long as they could. The Somalia Government and Western media said that more than 80 Kenyan soldiers died that day, even as the Kenyan government remained tight-lipped on the figures. Kenya is however not alone in having fallen to this Al Shabaab strategy; In June 2015, more than 70 soldiers from Burundi in Lego area, 100 kilometers South of Mogadishu, were killed just weeks after they had replaced their colleagues. In September 2015, at least 50 soldiers from Uganda were killed by the terrorist group in Janale District, 80 km southwest of Mogadishu in the Lower Shabelle region. A convoy of Ethiopian soldiers was also ambushed and dozens killed in 2015 during a troop rotation although the Ethiopians did not release final casualty figures.
Another cause for worry is that the response would only come from within Kenyan bases in Mandera, Elwak and Wajir and not from neighbouring Amisom forces within Somalia. Speculation has been rife over a lack of intelligence cooperation between Ethiopian and Kenyan forces over ties with rival Somalia clans that have been tasked with creating a buffer zone between the Al Shabaab and the respective countries, possibly alluding to the non-response from the Ethiopian forces to back up the estranged Kenyan forces.
With the latest attack on Kenyan troops at Kulbiyow however, the Kenyan troops seemed to have had it together successfully defending and repulsing the militants from their camp. As if learning from the El Adde shortfalls, the backup from the air was timely and managed to stabilise the situation for the ground in time for the ground troops to effectively keep the insurgents at bay. And even though the government initially appeared keen to hide the figures of the casualties, official military reports indicate that Kenya lost 21 troops from the attack. The media has also been granted exclusive access to the survivors of the attack as well as coverage of the Kulbiyow camp, probably to preempt any propaganda points Al Shabaab may have intended to score.
Renewed calls for withdrawal
There is growing calls for the withdrawal of the KDF from Somalia with key reasons ranging from the need to secure our borders from within; the high cost of the war in Somalia both financially as well as the loss of soldiers and the recent allegations of soldiers participating in illegal charcoal and sugar business with the Al Shabaab. Human Rights groups have also criticised the bombing of civilians as well as the torturing of locals for information on the Al Shabaab and its sympathisers. Whether this will happen anytime soon is subject to political developments between the government and the opposition in Kenya, each backing extreme ends of the discourse.
Whereas I support an exit strategy from Somalia, the move should not be rushed only for the Al Shabaab to regroup and resume attacks against Kenya. The following key pointers should also be considered to address previous shortfalls:
Amisom should realise that the Somalia operation is war and not another peace-keeping mission. As such, it is vital that full military strength is employed if and when necessary not only to deal a blow to the insurgents but also to protect the lives of the ground troops.
The writer is a Research Consultant with Savic Consultants in Nairobi.