Kenya taking charge in Horn of Africa – Thumbs up or down?

Bullets over Kismayo.

In news you may not have heard anything about, Kenyan troops are pressing an advance on the Somali coastal city of Kismayo, and the Kenyan navy is sinking ships associated with the Somali Islamist terror group Al-Shabaab offshore.

An ill-governed, splintered Somalia has been a thorn in the side of the region for 20 years, and international efforts to impose peace on the troubled nation have struggled just to remain credible, much less achieve their objectives.  Responding last fall to an increase in Al-Shabaab-sponsored terror attacks on her soil, Kenya has put together a campaign of military force to suppress Al-Shabaab action.  The latest effort in the campaign is rather more than that, however: Kenya, in company with troops from the Somali Transitional National Government (TNG), is driving toward Kismayo, an Al-Shabaab stronghold, and apparently intends to gain the geographic position to take a major role in imposing order on Somalia.   A number of news sources confirm that the Kenyan military is shelling Kismayo from the sea and attacking it from the air to prepare for an assault, which will probably begin in the next few weeks.

The Kenyan navy, besides hunting Al-Shabaab at sea, has told coastal fishermen to keep clear of the Kenyan-Somali maritime border, and is maintaining a constant patrol of the Somali coast around Kismayo.  A news video clip from Africa is worth the 2-odd minutes; it captures the organized determination of the Kenyan naval effort, and the sense of a new pattern of force being established (h/t:  Maritime Security Asia).  Even the death of Kenya’s Minister of Internal Security in a helicopter crash on Sunday – a man considered likely, by many, to be the next president – will not set back the operations in Somalia.

It’s a dirty job, but Kenyans can be pardoned for thinking someone has to do it.  Rumors are naturally flying that the US is participating in the operation, along with France.  US and French officials are declining to comment.  Just within the last week, meanwhile, a bill has been introduced in the US Senate to halt funding for the Kenyan military due to reports of atrocities committed against ethnic Somalis in 2008.  It’s not clear how this might affect Kenya’s long-term strategy for the Horn.

Interestingly, AP reported the arrival of a US State Department official in Mogadishu on Sunday as a “sign of improving security in the Horn of Africa’s most chaotic nation.”  The visit, and this characterization, do suggest US approval of the Kenyan military campaign.  With Kenyan troops across a big swath of Somali territory, and mounting Kenyan attacks from land, sea, and air, the dispassionate observer might conclude that security was not “improving” – at least not according to ordinary standards of security improvement.

There is a more important question, I think, than what role, if any, the US is playing.  We were sideswiped by the deployment of US special forces to Uganda in 2011, so it’s by no means out of the realm of possibility that we are providing intelligence, perhaps, and maybe command headquarters assistance (e.g., communications), as well as arms, to the Kenyan military.  Kenya is working with TNG troops, whom we and other Western nations have supplied with military materiel.


Map from the Heritage Foundation


Notably, the EU naval force participating in antipiracy operations off the Somali coast has also started attacking pirate assets ashore, for the first time since the operations started in 2008.  As far as can be ascertained, Russia and China, which also maintain antipiracy patrols, haven’t started attacking targets ashore yet.  The general amount of shooting is indicative of a more determined campaign against anti-TNG forces than ever before – but preoccupying Al-Shabaab and plinking pirates should not be confused with creating a sustainably secure situation in Somalia.  It’s early days to be declaring victory, unless we are content to simply let someone from the region impose, with an iron hand, a “peace” that is not necessarily to our advantage.

The seminal issue here, however, is the lead role Kenya is playing in the campaign to seize Kismayo from Al-Shabaab.  I’m ambivalent: I’m by no means opposed to regional powers taking the lead, and in the theoretical sense, that could be a positive development.  I am not a fan of Raila Odinga, however, and I think Congress has a point about the atrocities committed on his watch by the Kenyan military and security police.  Is Odinga’s Kenya a nation we want taking the lead in Somalia?

A related issue – an important one – is the competition for influence in Somalia between Iran and Turkey.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan jumped into Somalia with both feet last year; Iran has sought to play both sides in Somalia, providing Al-Shabaab’s principal nation-state sponsorship.  Kenya’s leadership may not be a match for these two (something France, Britain, and Italy understand pretty clearly, I imagine).  A lot is at stake in the fate of Somalia: the US may effectively let the strategic center of gravity be the Kenyan effort against Kismayo, but others won’t necessarily leave it to its own devices.

The TNG mandate ends on 20 August, which in theory will be a watershed date.  The UN is urging its members to support a peaceful transition to a popularly elected government for a unified Somalia.  Given the transition date set by the UN, there will have to be a decision of some kind this summer.

In general, the rise in instability and military deployments around the Eastern hemisphere, and the diversity of the actors involved, is reminiscent of the period from 1960 to 1990, when it seemed like coups, civil wars, and new dictators were constantly emerging, and smaller nations were forever waging little wars with each other.  There is nothing new about regional conflicts, aspiring regional leaders, and great powers posturing from afar but taking a less-than-desirable level of responsibility for their own interests.  Most of history, it is safe to say, has been more like that than not.

But that is the history that tends to produce increasing tension, arms races, great-power competition, and in the end – in the pre-nuclear era – big wars.  In the nuclear-armed world of today, the product of this kind of instability tends to be peoples held captive to repressive, often bloody ideological dictatorships.  If the US is leading Kenya from behind, or if France is, for that matter, the approach looks somewhat incalculable.  Better to just suck it up and lead from the front.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

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8 thoughts on “Kenya taking charge in Horn of Africa – Thumbs up or down?”

  1. A definite thumbs up. if possible get the Ethiopians on board. All the better if this culminates into an end run around the Arabian peninsula. At least (if successful), the Kenyan maneuver will deny the use of the Somali coast/ports to pirates and Islamic radicals. Gotta love them Kenyans, roll back Islam into the desert where it belongs!

  2. The UN is urging its members to support a peaceful transition to a popularly elected government for a unified Somalia.

    Why should there be a “unified Somalia”? Or even Kenya, for that matter. These latter-day nation/states, following the pattern of the principalities that formed the United Kingdom, France, the US and Germany, are based on those Euro-concepts of government and are as foreign to the Africans as ice hockey and grizzly bears, which is why they haven’t worked out all that well. Not having been exposed to continuous democratic propaganda since birth, an ordinary Somali intuitively realizes that mixing his single ballot in with that of millions of others accomplishes nothing for his own well-being and that maintaining the traditional tribal order that has sustained his forebears for several millennia might just work for a while longer.

    Certainly the trading nations of the world have a right and duty to quell piracy on the open seas but invading an area because it lacks a powerful central government to organize defense is imperialism, pure and simple.

  3. I’m with jgets here – thumbs up! I say let the Kenyans light up the pirates all they want. They’ll be doing the rest of us a favor. If I were President of the USA, my policy would be to let the military attack pirates on land and sea and with or without explicit provocation.

  4. J.E., is your keyboard emitting smoke? Three posts in one day? I wouldn’t be surprised if your local convenience store needed another supply of Jolt soda..!

  5. Africa is tribal. There are no established, successful bastions of representative democracy in this region of Africa. The choice is between tribal dictators and Islamic theocracies. The brutality of a dictatorship and that of an Islamic theocracy are morally equivalent.

    Therefore, the West’s considerations necessarily center upon the long term strategic dynamics.

    Islam’s theology makes it a threat to every other system of governance and its indoctrination into a culture makes it extremely difficult to negate. Islam embeds itself within a culture and seeks permanence of control.

    Dictatorships are inherently unstable and generally limited to the lifetime of the current strongman.

    When the time is right, dictators are relatively easy to overthrow. Their ambitions for greater regional dominance are relatively easy to contain.

    The choice is therefore clear; allow Kenya to eliminate the shipping and port facilities of the Somali’s. Allow Kenya to conquer as much of Somalia as desired and needed to effectively reduce Islam’s use of Somalia’s strategic
    value to Islam.

    1. Tribes have been a successful method of societal organization for millennia. Their supposedly dictatorial leaders operate through consensus rather than coercion and are necessarily more responsive to the needs and wishes of their fellows than the corresponding selections of sham democracy. Failure to address the concerns of the tribal members leads to loss of rank or worse.

      Tribes have yet to threaten the earth’s population with extinction and can’t be blamed for the deaths of millions as perpetrated by the homicidal efficiencies of the so-called civilized nation-state. In fact, tribes continue to endure a program of extermination or assimilation by all nation-states, who can’t share their sovereignty and continue to fabricate justifications for invading the homes and killing the inhabitants of remote places.

      It’s understandable that you have this warped view of human relationships since you’ve probably never reflected upon the never-ending propaganda the nation-state uses to indoctrinate its subjects. A great example is this article:,0,5725691.column
      Interestingly, the victim describes the unprovoked attack as “like Lord of the Flies”, a book long popular in high schools that was made into movies at least twice, that purports to show the breakdown of society without authority as demonstrated by a descent into savagery by boy survivors of a plane crash on a remote island. Never mind that the story is fiction, and bad fiction at that. The unfortunate incident that sent the doctor to the hospital for treatment occurred in a suburb of Chicago, one of the most intensely governed spots on the planet. If there’s a problem with youth crime in Chicago, it’s not due to a tribal environment.

      Finally, while it’s less and less of a concern every day, there’s the question of how the murder of societal “primitives” by advanced societies should be regarded by those that consider themselves Christians. It’s hard to imagine that Christ himself would be an advocate of murdering those who follow a different system of government any more than he would those who follow a different deity. If the statists are correct in their beliefs they should have no problem convincing others of the merits of their position. It shouldn’t be necessary to kill them to change their mind.

      1. Did you inadvertently skip your meds? On this issue, I came down in favor of Kenya, even though ruled by what amounts to a tribal dictator.

        Tribes aren’t necessarily bad but generally are when they embrace conquest. But even if Kenya was ruled by another Assad, I judged it to be, strategically for the West a preferable outcome than allowing Somalia to continue to operate as a base for Islam. So what are you disputing?

        Your comment, “It’s understandable that you have this warped view of human relationships” is disproportionate to what I said, which indicates a personal animus. Since I’ve never attacked you personally but have strongly disagreed with you, your reaction indicates an inability to dispassionately consider disagreement.

        You might consider, out of self-interest, getting some help with that issue.

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