The Kenyan invasion of Somalia is a perhaps unavoidable risk
Oct 29th 2011 | NAIROBI | from the print edition
SINCE Kenya became independent in 1963, its foreign policy has been determinedly non-interventionist. Its armed forces have seen little action at home and even less abroad. That changed this week when several thousand Kenyan troops invaded neighbouring Somalia.
The Americans claim that the offensive took them by surprise. That is hard to believe, especially since several of the missiles fired at jihadist fighters hidden in the mangrove swamps on the Somali side of the border seem to have been fired from American drones or submarines. France is also reported to have bombarded settlements near the Somali port of Kismayo, a base for the al-Qaeda-linked Shabab militia. The French were outraged by the recent kidnapping in Kenya of a disabled French woman and her subsequent death in Somalia, presumably at the Shabab’s hands, as well as by the capture of one its spies in Somalia two years ago.
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Kenya is frank about its military aim. It says it wants to push on from its positions in the Somali towns of Afmadow and Ras Kamboni to attack Kismayo from the west and south. It hopes to “inflict trauma and damage” on the Shabab.
And then what? The answer is fuzzier. Should Kenya take control of Kismayo or should it bash it and then leave quickly, in the hope that other Somali groups will then knock out the Shabab militants? No one knows how disciplined the Kenyans will be, nor how the Somalis will react to their presence. The Kenyan army has been accused of human-rights abuses at home. Some think it is soft and corrupt.
Even if it proves such sceptics wrong, it will have a bloody fight on its hands. Recent rains have made many tracks in southern Somalia impassable. Despite threats of air raids, Shabab insurgents could cut off Kenyan lines. If the Kenyans humble the Shabab within Somalia, the jihadists may well carry out a vengeful series of suicide-bombings in Kenya and beyond.
That campaign may already have begun. On October 24th two grenade attacks were carried out in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, killing one person and wounding dozens of others. Kenyans are frightened. Ethnic Somalis, who include some 2m Kenyan citizens, have begun to suffer checks and harassment.
The kidnapping and killing of foreign tourists has temporarily wrecked Kenyan tourism. A flood of refugees from Somalia, particularly to the Dadaab camp, has begun to pose a risk for Kenya. For some months Kenyan citizens and soldiers have been shot at and kidnapped along the border. A buffer zone was clearly needed. The government’s decision to take direct action against the Shabab across the border may have been irresistible.
Oxfam and other international charities say that 750,000 Somalis are at immediate risk of dying from hunger. Such numbers are open to dispute. But an upsurge in fighting may make more people in southern Somalia hungry. Many Somalis, not just Islamist ones, suspect that the Kenyan authorities want a semi-autonomous state in the south—a “Jubaland initiative”.
The Somalis’ fear that Somalia will break into more bits has already caused the president of its transitional government, Sharif Ahmed, to denounce the presence of Kenyan troops inside Somalia, even though the Kenyans say they crossed the border only at the invitation of his government. After all, Somaliland in the north has already broken away and Puntland, in the north-east, is tenuously connected to the rump of Somalia. The transitional government holds the capital, Mogadishu, while the Shabab still runs a swathe of territory around it.
The invasion will certainly hit commerce. Kenya profitably exports qat, a leaf stimulant chewed by Somali men, into Jubaland. Kenyan officials benefit from that trade and from turning a blind eye to the import of Somali cattle for slaughter in Nairobi. In any event, the Kenyan assault on the Shabab is a high-stakes gamble