Kenya’s military drive into neighboring Somalia to thwart attacks by the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab risks ending like previous interventions by the U.S. and Ethiopia -- in retreat and failure.
While Kenya’s well-equipped army has been able to advance into southern Somalia, it may not be able to withstand attacks by a determined guerrilla force, according to Thomas Cargill, assistant head of the Africa Program at the London-based international-affairs institute Chatham House, who called it Kenya’s first foreign intervention.
“The problem comes with a counter-insurgency, that once you are there and become a target, do you have the skills to counter the increasing attacks against you?” he said by phone yesterday. “On that score, I think the Kenyan military is fairly untried.”
Kenyan soldiers entered Somalia on Oct. 16 after the kidnapping of foreign tourists and aid workers in Kenya that officials blame on al-Shabaab, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. They may aim for the port of Kismayo, Emmanuel Chirchir, a defense department spokesman, said yesterday. It is a key target because control of the port gives al-Shabaab revenue.
Marie Dedieu, a 66-year-old disabled French woman who was kidnapped from a house near the northern Kenyan town of Lamu by Somali gunmen on Oct. 1, has probably died, the French Foreign Ministry said today in a statement.
Contacts with whom France was negotiating for Dedieu’s freedom “have announced her death without informing us of the precise date or the circumstances,” it said.
Kenya was joined by Somalia today in calling for international support for its operation, the Kenyan presidency said in an e-mailed statement.
The Kenyans and forces allied to Somalia’s western-backed transitional government secured the towns of Tabda and Afmadow, which is which is about 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of the Kenyan border, Chirchir said. They have killed 75 al-Shabaab militants since the operation began, the Nairobi-based Standard newspaper reported today, without citing anyone.
“My understanding is that they have, at most, 2,000 troops they are trying to drive through to Kismayo,” Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director at the Ansari Africa Center of the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said in a phone interview yesterday. “I don’t think it’s feasible that they can get very far into Somalia, because 2,000 troops just aren’t enough.”
‘Black Hawk Down’
Somalia, on Kenya’s northeastern border, hasn’t had a functioning government since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Al-Shabaab has waged a four-year campaign to remove the transitional administration and controls most of southern and central Somalia.
Kenya’s military would be well-advised to conduct the operation swiftly and hand over any territory its forces gain to militias loyal to Somalia’s government, Bruton said.
“Foreign incursions aren’t welcomed by the Somalis,” she said.
The U.S. concluded a two-year mission in the country, “Operation Restore Hope,” which involved as many as 33,000 U.S. and United Nations soldiers, after the downing of two American helicopters in Mogadishu in October 1994, an incident made famous by Mark Bowden’s book “Black Hawk Down.”
Forces from neighboring Ethiopia withdrew in January 2009 after a two-year campaign that ousted the Islamic Courts Union government and later became bogged down in a guerrilla war with the Islamic militias.
“If you look at Afghanistan and Iraq, you see these types of operations fall into traps and weaken them further and further, so then they need to make a withdrawal,” Cargill said. “I would very much hope that for Kenya it would be intended to be an in-and-out operation, and not stick around in southern Somalia.”
Kenya acted after kidnappings of aid workers and attacks on tourists. East Africa’s biggest economy is counting on a tripling of tourists to 3 million a year by 2015 to help achieve a goal of 10 percent growth. Dry weather has hurt economic output in the country, the world’s largest producer of black tea and a grower of high-quality coffee beans. Gross domestic product fell 4.6 percent in the second quarter from the first three months of the year.
Kenya’s intervention will be “expensive” and funding for it will be a “challenge,” Finance Ministry Permanent Secretary Joseph Kinyua told reporters today in Nairobi.
The possible loss of tourism earnings and slower manufacturing output due to shipments being hijacked by Somali pirates would cost the economy more if the Kenyan government took no action, Kinyua said. The cost of the intervention into Somalia hasn’t been calculated, he said.
Costs of Intervention
“If we do nothing to attend to the security issue, and also sensitize our main markets in terms of the security situation, then obviously the tourism is likely to go down,” he said.
Gunmen from Somalia on Oct. 13 abducted two foreign aid workers from the medical group Medecins Sans Frontieres at a refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. Somalis fleeing famine and war have poured across the border this year and Kenya now hosts 590,000 UN-registered Somali refugees, three-quarters of whom live in the Dadaab complex, the world’s largest refugee facility.
British tourist David Tebbutt was killed and his wife, Judith, was abducted last month at a resort in Kiwayu, 503 kilometers southeast of Nairobi, and is being held hostage in Somalia.
Threat to Tourism
The Lamu archipelago, where the incidents took place, is one of Kenya’s main attractions for tourists who generated 73.7 billion shillings ($737 million) for the country last year, the second-largest foreign-exchange earner after tea. The U.K. government changed its travel advice on Oct. 1 to recommend that visitors to Kenya avoid non-essential visits within 150 kilometers of the border with Somalia.
The tourism industry was expanding before the attacks. Overseas arrivals jumped almost 14 percent to 549,083 in the first half of this year, while earnings surged 32 percent to 40.5 billion shillings, Tourism Minister Najib Balala said on Aug. 25.
Kenyan Defense Minister Yusuf Haji and Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula flew to Mogadishu, the Somali capital, yesterday for talks with President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s government and pledged to press ahead with the military operation.
A bomb exploded outside a complex of ministry buildings in Mogadishu after al-Shabaab vowed to resist the Kenyan forces.
“They attack us by air and on the border; we must unite and fight back until we clear our territory,” a leader of the Islamist movement, Sheikh Hassan Abdulahi Hersi, said yesterday in a voice recording on Radio al-Furqaan, a station that backs al-Shabaab. “The Kenyan government will lose many people and assets because of its intervention in our territory.”
For Kenyans, pride that the government is taking action against the Somali gunmen is tempered by precedent, says Ndungu Wainaina, executive director of the Nairobi-based International Centre for Policy and Conflict.
“Kenyans like that they can see the government doing something after these kidnappings, but also they have an element of reservation arising from the fact any foreign intervention in Somalia has ended up in catastrophic results,” he said yesterday by phone. “With a significant population of Somalis in Kenya, they worry that the likelihood of attack is high.”
African Union Force
About 9,000 Ugandan and Burundian soldiers form the African Union-led peacekeeping force in Somalia. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for twin bomb attacks in July last year that claimed the lives of at least 76 people in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
“I don’t know of any foreign intervention in Somalia that has had a happy outcome,” Cargill said. “It would be nice if Kenya’s intervention is able to impose some kind of security in southern Somalia but the precedents are not good.”