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.