The Kenyan army says it has crippled Somalia’s al-Shabaab rebels four months after launching an offensive to defeat them but its superior firepower alone is unlikely to win the battle, analysts said.
Military officials claim air strikes and ground assaults have scuttled the al-Qaeda-linked militants and disrupted their revenue sources since the incursion — Kenya’s first since independence in 1963 — began in October.
“Al-Shabaab is considerably weakened,” said Kenyan army spokesperson Colonel Cyrus Oguna. “In our own assessment, 75% of revenue collection of al-Shabaab has been disrupted.”
But the troops have gained little ground in the 17 weeks since they announced on October 16 that their tanks had rolled across the border two days earlier.
Their advance was bogged down at the start by mud and bad weather, and then slowed by al-Shabaab’s guerrilla tactics — mingling with civilians before attacking.
“The Kenyans’ military strategy as well as political strategy has so far not achieved much. There was a lot of over optimism on the Kenyan side for success and that has clearly not turned out to be the case,” said Rashid Abdi, an independent Horn of Africa analyst.
“You need a combination of measures. You need a clearly well thought-out military plan, but at the same time one which is complemented by a political strategy,” Abdi said.
Politically, Kenya had hoped to form a new security administration inside the southern Somali regions of Gedo, Lower and Middle Juba — together also known as Jubaland — and had trained Somali forces for the buffer territory.
However, the idea has gained little traction and the international support from Western allies in terms of the military aid Kenya had hoped for has at best been modest.
“Kenyan officials were seriously out of touch with how the world operates, if they went to war without adequate funds and counted on the international community,” said J Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council think-tank.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a November report that Nairobi should cool its high hopes of defeating the al-Shabaab, a ruthless and resilient militia fighting to overthrow the Western-backed government in Mogadishu.
“Downscaling expectations must start with reorienting the mission towards the one modest goal that is achievable in Somalia — degrading al-Shabaab’s military capabilities and encouraging a negotiated solution,” the group said.
Kenyan officials have also contradicted each other on whether the operation’s ultimate goal is to capture Kismayo, a port town in southern Somalia and a key revenue source for the al-Shabaab, or to simply secure Kenya’s border areas.
“The military must resist the temptation to seek spectacular gains,” the ICG think tank said.
“It makes perfect military sense to target Kismayo port … but it should be done deliberately and other measures such as an economic — not humanitarian — blockade of the port, and the attrition of fighting on multiple fronts allowed to work.”
Kenya’s “Operation Linda Nchi” — Operation Protect the Country in Swahili — has certainly altered the dynamics of the Somali conflict, upping the pressure on the al-Shabaab, while other regional states have since sent troops to Somalia.
Nairobi has offered its troops to join the African Union Mission in Somalia, a 10 000-strong force based in the capital Mogadishu made up of soldiers from Burundi, Djibouti and Uganda.
Ethiopia has also sent in columns of tanks and troops into western and southern Somalia.
But beyond its military offensive, Kenya should seek a wider strategy to restore stability in Somalia, a lawless country that has had no effective central government for 21 years, experts warn.
“Kenyans have an opportunity to broaden their aim — it shouldn’t be just creating this buffer territory,” said Abdi. “They should be seeking to stabilise the whole of Somalia.” — AFP