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.
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.
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