African business, politics and lifestyle
Operation Somalia: The U.S., Ethiopia and now Kenya
By Aaron Maasho
Ethiopia did it five years ago, the Americans a while back. Now Kenya has rolled tanks and troops across its arid frontier into lawless Somalia, in another campaign to stamp out a rag-tag militia of Islamist rebels that has stoked terror throughout the region with threats of strikes.
The catalyst for Nairobi’s incursion was a series of kidnappings by Somali gunmen on its soil. A Frenchwoman was bundled off to Somalia from northern Kenya, while a British woman and two female aid workers from Spain, abducted from a refugee camp inside Kenya, are also being held across the border.
The incidents caused concern over their impact on the country’s vital tourism industry, with Kenya’s forecast 100 billion shillings or revenue this year expected to falter. The likes of Britain and the United States have already issued warnings against travel to some parts of the country.
Kenyans have so far responded with bravado towards their government’s operation against the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab group. Local channels regularly show high approval ratings for the campaign, some as high as 98 percent.
“The issue of our security is non-negotiable,” one commentator told a TV station in the wake of the announcement. Another chipped in with: ”We’ve been casual to the extent of endangering our national sovereignty. Kenya has what it takes to get rid of this dangerous threat once and for all.”
Isn’t that what the Ethiopians said in late 2006?
After repeated threats of jihad against the predominantly Christian nation, Addis Ababa wasted little time in deploying thousands of highly-trained and battle-ready troops to Somalia against the Islamic Courts Union, the precursor to today’s al Shabaab.
It routed them quickly and the group’s leaders retreated to exile, giving way to the much more militant and aggressive al Shabaab. Addis Ababa then found itself bogged down in near-daily bouts of urban warfare and finally withdrew two years later citing mounting costs and a lack of regional will to sort out the situation.
Al Shabaab have since controlled large swathes of southern Somalia against the internationally-backed government’s control of the capital.
Ethiopia’s ill-fated mission followed a U.S. foray in late 1993. In a bid to capture clan leaders who were trampling on the humanitarian relief following the downfall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991, Washington sent soldiers to enforce a U.N.mission.
The operation ended in disaster. Two Black Hawk choppers were shot down and 18 servicemen killed. The bodies of several soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and a hasty withdrawal followed.
Though Kenyan troops have already encroached inside Somalia on a number of occasions and are well-trained and supplied, questions remain over how they will cope with a potential guerrilla war against fighters hardened on years of skirmishes in the remote region.
With Kenya keeping a tight lid on details of the operation, the media is asking what the desired end game is. Initially, there was speculation that Kenya wanted to secure a buffer zone along its long, porous frontier with Somalia.
Government spokesman Alfred Mutua said on Thursday the aim was only to dismantle al Shabaab’s network and leave, not spending an hour longer than necessary in Somalia.
Kenyan soldiers may well find themselves in a different scenario to that of Ethiopia.
Ethiopian troops were at the vanguard of the fight against Somalia’s Islamist militants. In this case, an African Union force of 9,000 has more or less secured Mogadishu, Western allies are providing Kenya with technical support and Somali government troops and allied militias are fighting alongside the east African country.
Will Kenya ultimately prove its doubters wrong and secure gains that have eluded its peers? Or will this be another ill-fated operation that will end up in an embarrassing withdrawal?