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After nearly a year in Somalia, Kenya is preparing to commence its assault on Kismaayo, Al-Shabaab’s strategic and financial outpost, and the current front line of the concerted counter-insurgency campaign in southern Somalia. With Merca just fallen, could this prove the boon to the KDF’s expeditionary gamble?
By Lesley Anne Warner for RUSI.org
In October 2011, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) invaded southern Somalia with the stated purpose of dismantling Al-Shabaab and seizing the port city of Kismaayo, from which the Islamist militant organisation earns the majority of its revenues. After an initially swift invasion, Kenyan forces languished in southern Somalia for seven months before conquering the city of Afmadow, which lay only 90 miles from its common border with Somalia. Upon seizing Afmadow, both Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and KDF Chief of General Staff, General Julius Karangi projected that Kismaayo would fall by 20 August - the date of the expiration of the mandate of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Like previous targets articulated during the course of the Kenyan military's involvement in Somalia, the attack on Kismaayo has since been delayed, but is imminent nonetheless.
When Kenya sent troops across the border last autumn, there were many reservations about the KDF's prospects for success. The failure, to date, of successive military interventions by the United States, Ethiopia, the United Nations (UN) and, until recently, the African Union (AU) was but one of these concerns. Although the KDF is a professional military that has formerly participated in AU and UN peacekeeping operations, it had no expeditionary experience outside of these deployments, and has had limited experience fighting an unconventional adversary like Al-Shabaab. Compounding these challenges, Kenyan forces entered Somalia right at the outset of the rainy season and were stalled for several months, burdened by the logistical challenges imposed by the poor infrastructure of southern Somalia.
These challenges notwithstanding, the KDF has achieved a measure of success - albeit due to factors largely outside of its control. Due to internal fissures, draconian tactics targeting civilian populations, and its inability to respond to the famine in areas under its control in mid-2011, Al-Shabaab had been in decline for several months prior to Kenya's invasion. This trajectory has continued well into 2012. After its 'tactical retreat' from Mogadishu in August 2011, Al-Shabaab was pushed from Afgoye in Lower Shabelle by AMISOM and TFG troops in May 2012, just days before the KDF and TFG-affiliated militias pushed them from Afmadow in Lower Juba. Adding to the pressure from AMISOM, TFG and KDF troops, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), working with the government-aligned Somali militia Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaca (ASWJ), had re-entered Somalia in November 2011, this time restricting their operations to the Bay, Bakool, Galgaduud, Gedo and Hiraan regions immediately adjacent to Ethiopia's border with Somalia. Rather than facing these offensives head-on, Al-Shabaab has either melted into the local population or dispersed to the Galgala Mountains in Puntland in northern Somalia, as well as to Yemen and parts of East Africa. Thus, in spite of the initial challenges the KDF faced upon entering Somalia, the co-ordinated, multinational, multi-front offensive has put Al Shabaab, which was already weakened, in further disarray.
Aligning National Interest with AMISOM Priorities
Another element of the KDF's success in Somalia was not only its decision to join AMISOM, but more importantly, the process through which it chose to do so. For over four years, the Ugandan and Burundian troops that have formed the bulk of AMISOM had been hunkered down in Al Shabaab-controlled Mogadishu, unable to extend pro-TFG control beyond of a few key positions in the city. This dynamic had started to change throughout 2011, as AMISOM began to gain the strategic initiative, and as more areas in the city came under government control. If Kenya had joined AMISOM at this point, it may have faced pressure to join the offensive in Mogadishu and continue to expand the areas under AMISOM's control from there. Given the failure of a succession of Mogadishu-centric efforts to stabilise Somalia, this would have been a tough sell to the Kenyan domestic constituency. Moreover, the prospect of military operations in southern Somalia was more closely aligned with Kenya's national security interests at the time - namely, the need to address the growing problem of cross-border kidnappings, counter terrorist infiltration into northern Kenya, and stem the flow of refugees across the border. By unilaterally launching Operation Linda Nchi, the designation of the KDF's area of operations in the south was essentially a fait accompli by the time Kenya accepted IGAD and AU requests to join AMISOM.
After several months of negotiations on command relationships, financial arrangements and a revised concept of operations, Kenya signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the AU in June 2012. UN Security Council Resolution 2036 in February 2012 had previously authorised the expansion of AMISOM from 12,000 soldiers to just over 17,700; under AMISOM's strategic concept for future operations, approximately 4,700 KDF forces were to be 're-hatted' and assigned to Sector 2 (Middle and Lower Juba) to work alongside troops from Sierra Leone. Furthermore, 9,500 Ugandan and Burundian troops would operate in Sector 1 (Banaadir, and Middle and Lower Shabelle), 2,500 Ugandan and Burundian troops would operate in Sector 3 (Gedo, Bay and Bakool), and 1,000 Djiboutian troops would be deployed to Sector 4 (Galgudud, Mudug and Hiraan). The deployment of AMISOM and TFG troops to Sectors 3 and 4 would allow them to assume control of areas liberated by the ENDF - a move that sought to avoid a repeat of Ethiopia's 2006-09 occupation of Somalia from which the Al-Shabaab insurgency sprang.
Although the AU mission itself had been prone to chronic funding shortfalls, joining AMISOM mitigated early concerns over Kenya's ability to financially sustain its operations in Somalia. As a troop contributor to AMISOM, the KDF contingent would have access to funding for pre-deployment training, payment of troop allowances, logistic support, and the reimbursement for contingent-owned equipment. More importantly, becoming part of AMISOM placed the KDF in a more favourable position to initiate the assault on Kismaayo.
Preparing to Take Kismaayo
As it transitions from flushing a severely weakened Al-Shabaab from southern Somalia to preparations for the Kismayo offensive, the Kenyan contingent of AMISOM may be on the cusp of a different kind of fight. As Kenya has moved through southern Somalia, Al-Shabaab has largely avoided engaging the KDF in direct combat. Kismaayo may be an exception. But, although Kismaayo forms the backbone of Al Shabaab's finances, the group may be too weak to repel the attack, and may continue to disperse to rural areas in the south or to other countries in the region. Alternatively, Al-Shabaab may decide that it is more advantageous to lure AMISOM and TFG forces into a quagmire and use asymmetric tactics to disrupt air, land and sea routes into the city. Furthermore, Al-Shabaab may choose to use targeted killings to dissuade the city's occupants from co-operating with AMISOM and the TFG. These types of retaliatory attacks have been on the rise in Mogadishu, and AMISOM must be prepared to protect the civilian population if this tactic is employed in Kismaayo.
As AMISOM enters Kismaayo, the KDF contingent will also have to address the city's administrative vacuum. This will entail brokering - and sustaining - a post-Shabaab political dispensation among the three major Darood clans (Ogaden, Marehan and Harti) that reside in this long-contested area. In fact, Kismaayo will be a true test of the success of Kenya's strategy of co-operating with nominally TFG-affiliated militias such as the Ras Kamboni Brigade and ASWJ. Not only will the durability of these relationships be tested once Al-Shabaab has been driven from Kismaayo, but so will AMISOM's ability to act as a mediator and, if necessary, a peace enforcer. This will be a crucial role, as it will be necessary to prevent Al-Shabaab - or any other potential spoilers - from capitalising on disarray in Kismaayo, or trying to rebuild its support base by leveraging the grievances of weak and disenfranchised clans.
Right Place, Right Time?
In spite of the challenges that have delayed Kenya's advance towards Kismaayo, the KDF contingent of AMISOM has achieved a measure of progress in southern Somalia. From the relatively untested 'career army' that it was previously perceived to be, the KDF now has expeditionary experience, and may soon gain experience in urban guerrilla warfare should Al-Shabaab elect to defend Kismaayo, one of the group's last remaining geostrategic positions. In addition, although the current military progress is several years in the making, Kenya has become part of an increasingly successful, co-ordinated effort to address a regional security problem, which may provide the political and economic space to support nascent progress in Somalia.
In sum, the KDF is becoming a more credible military force in East Africa - and with optimal timing, considering the speculation over the role that Ethiopia's military will play in the region in the aftermath of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's death. That said a key weakness in the military campaign in the south is that progress on the military front has not been replicated on the political front. Thus, there is ample opportunity for these military successes in southern Somalia to unravel.
Follow the author on Twitter: @lesley_warner
Lesley Anne Warner is an Africa analyst at CNA's Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the official positions of any organisation with which she is affiliated.