How Kenya, Somalia and allies can win the war against Al Shabaab this time around.


Al Shabaab fighters in a parade

Kenya army’s excursion into Somalia in pursuit of the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (or simply Al Shabaab) militia has entered into its second week. According to Kenya army, the extremists have suffered significant losses and are said to be in retreat. This, of course, is good news. But we can ensure that gains made in the coming days are more sustainable by implementing the following measures:

  • Prioritize winning the battle of the mind: Winning the hearts and support of the Somali people in the entire Horn of Africa is much more important than wiping out the militia’s strongholds. This is the only way the Somali people will not see Kenya as a foreign force violating their sovereignty and occupying their land with the help of the west. Currently, this is the rhetoric the Shabaab are using to whip up patriotic emotions and further radicalize the moderates like they have successfully done in the past. Kenya and her allies must now engage diplomats to launch a concise and sustained media campaign in the Greater Somalia region. We must define this war’s narrative, craft it into acceptable rhetoric and use Somali’s local media to win the hearts and minds of all peace-loving Somali people. There is need to explain to the Somali people why Kenya and her allies are not just pursuing her interests, but are acting in the interest of peace for the Somali nation. It would be nice if Kenya’s minister for Foreign Affairs Moses Wetangula accompanied by other Somali leaders gives interviews to Radio Shabelle in Mogadishu, for example. We must also engage the help of respected religious leaders in Kenya and Somalia to assure Somalis that it is not their religion under attack here.
  • After chasing the Shabaab out of town, what next? The international community and regional governments should launch massive state-building programs in liberated areas to scale up the capacity of Somalia’s TFG. Aid for state-building & development from partners like the US and EU must start flowing immediately. A vacuum will only lead to the rise of opportunistic elements like the clan war lords and even the Shabaab to fill the gap, taking us back to square one. Reconstruction must begin immediately with institutions for provision of security (coupled with lifting of arms embargo on Somalia) and economic development. Aid agencies must start shifting from purely humanitarian assistance to aid for development, in large amounts! A strong government in Somalia will be able to deal with extremism, piracy and address the current fractionalization of the country into the existing tiny unviable ‘mini states’. As we do this, we must ensure that all programs and projects bear the Somali government’s stamp so that the citizens begin to have confidence in their government’s capacity to govern.
  • Redefining and/or extending AMISOM mandate: In light of the recent security developments, there is need to draw a new plan for AMISOM. The proposed increase in size from current 9000 to at least 15000 should be implemented now. Areas of operation need to be extended to include strategic the towns of Baidoa, Kismayu and Afmadow. It is the high time Djibouti and Senegal sent their troops as promised. Kenya and Uganda should lead this effort at Addis to draw up a new, broader mandate for AMISOM.

In conclusion, swift, effective action is critical. Because war is a bad thing; even a seemingly just war like this one has its downside. Therefore, it must take as short a duration as possible. There are costs in terms of lives and money (better spent in developing our economy etc). Through better coordination amongst all the allies and timely logistical support, this operation should ideally be complete in under five months.


Taking the War to Al Shabaab is Right, But….

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First of all, I’m not a huge fan of military adventures, especially unconventional ones featuring a stable state with a lot to lose going against armed groups from basket case states which have nothing to lose.

Kenya army at a past parade

However, I must say that I support the Kenya government’s decision to take the war to Al Shabaab at the Somalia-Kenya border, and if need be to pursue them into Somalia. In fact, this was long overdue. Al Shabaab has made daring attacks and breached our territorial integrity numerous times in the recent past, you wonder if it had to take abductions and killings of foreign nationals for the government to act.

But we need to ask ourselves several questions:

  1. What is our exit strategy? Borrowing from the Colin Powell doctrine, we need to have a clear exit strategy. How long are we going to be engaged? At what point do we declare our mission over, battle won and bring back home our boys?    It is very easy for a state to bring out the guns to war, but no one wants to take them back to their bases without a clear victory; it’s very bad for a country’s image and any govt’s ratings! How long is Prof Saitoti and Yusuf Hajji prepared to keep our forces there? The key thing is to avoid an endless and costly entanglement like the US finds itself in in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  2. All about money: Make no mistake; military incursions cost money, tons of it. So we should all expect a spike in our Defence allocations pretty soon. And of course these will be highly secretive so we’ll never know exactly how the money is being used. Since Kenya is not like Ethiopia which gets billions in military aid from the west, it means the Kenyan taxpayer will foot this bill. Just when we were making the turn from reduced GDP growth in the face of an economic downturn… So there goes Uhuru’s austerity measures to bring down government expenditure! We need to demand a quick and decisive end to this campaign.
  3. Regional support: A unilateral action can never end the Al Shabaab threat, as the Ethiopians will tell you. Coordination with other actors in the Somali conflict is paramount. How is Kenya’s campaign complementing the ongoing AMISOM’s role? How about the US and its allies who have been carrying out covert attacks on militant targets? Kenya should not try to play the hero here. Working with others will mean lower costs and spreading the attendant risks.
  4. To close the border or not: Granted, there are bad elements streaming into the country. But I do not support closing the border to thousands of refugees fleeing the war and famine in Somalia. It is inhuman and against Article 31 and 33(1) on the UN Convention on Refugees. What is needed is better processing of incoming refugees coupled with greater international efforts to assist the refugees. The UNHCR must lead and do. The international community needs to channel more funds towards this because the stability and security of Kenya holds the key to a stable Horn.
  5. Risk of reprisals: There is obviously the risk of reprisals from the militants, and these could come in form of suicide attacks in Kenya like we saw in Mogadishu last month. But something tells me this risk may not be that high; Kenya hosts numerous Somali refugees some of whom are suspected to be sympathizers/financiers of Al Shabaab who have also invested in the country. It would be counter-productive to bite the hand that feeds you. However, this threat can be addressed by more vigilant policing. The Kenya Police Service is the most lax force I ever saw in East Africa!
  6. The real Somali problem. Let’s all remember that all these military actions are just dealing with symptoms, not causes. In fact, it is classic George Bush-Dick Cheney School of Thought; let’s pummel the extremists to smithereens and bring glorious democracy to all. There is one small problem: the extremists will begin to paint our mission as ‘desecration of their holy land’s territorial integrity by Christian nations’ and thereby whip up patriotic sympathies from moderate Somalis. This is a rhetoric that Islamists world over have used with great success, managing to recruit adherents in the face of sustained US-led military incursions. Let’s remember that majority of Somalis are actually moderate Muslims whose only reason of supporting the extremists is lack of viable alternative government. Which takes us back to the unpopular need to shore up the TFG and TFIs, with a good dose of pragmatism.
  7. Do not under-estimate Al Shabaab: There are those in the Kenya government who think that Al Shabaab is some rag tag outfit only armed with AK 47s. Wrong. Al Shabaab is a quasi-government with sophisticated weaponry, thanks to military support from Eritrea (until a UN and AU arms embargo in 2010). They have excellent taxation policies in Kismayo port and until recently, Mogadishu. Also, a UN investigation unearthed a lucrative charcoal export business which brings the militants an estimated $15 million every year. They collect more revenue than the UN-backed TFG. What makes them more lethal is the fact that their fighters are well-adapted to guerilla warfare. They are willing to die for their cause; we certainly want our soldiers to come back home in one piece!

This must not be seen by policy makers in Nairobi and Addis Ababa as the silver bullet that eradicates the Shabaab threat. It should be taken as one part of a holistic regional approach that will take years before we can say that the threat is reasonably neutralized.

Godspeed Kenya Defense Forces! And resist the temptation of embarking on a ‘Liberate Somalia’ mission while there. In fact, go no more than 100km. Only Somalis can do that.
And remember, any campaign that lasts more than 5months is OCCUPATION.