When a column of Kenyan tanks and armoured personnel carriers rolled into southern Somalia in the small hours of Friday, October 14, the reaction was a mixture of surprise and scepticism.
A story in the American Time magazine triggered some of the strongest debates.
“Kenya invades Somalia. Does it get any dumber?” was the headline of the article in which the writer confidently predicted defeat for the Kenyans.
“Faced with Al-Shabaab’s well-armed, experienced and more numerous guerrillas – fighters who two years ago saw off a far fiercer, better trained and bigger Ethiopian force – Kenya’s soldiers seem headed for deadlock at best and, at worst, bloody defeat.”
Seven months on, Kenyan military officials are quietly celebrating the progress they have made in their first incursion into a neighbouring country since independence.
Al-Shabaab is on the run, pounded into ever-diminishing hideouts following the squeeze applied by African Union forces from all fronts.
Its resistance in Mogadishu collapsed once the Kenyans entered the fray, bringing in air and naval resources that had previously not been applied against the group.
In the south, the Shabaab have been pushed more than 140 kilometres away from the border, loosening their hold on territory measuring about 100,000 square kilometres, or roughly a sixth of Somalia.
Life is slowly returning to normal in many town centres, and residents are speaking out against the Shabaab with a candour unimaginable only months ago.
“Our children can’t even write their own names since Al-Shabaab had closed all the schools,” says one elder, Abdullahi Sharrif Hassan, sitting cross-legged at the meeting square in Afmadhow not far from the former Shabaab headquarters in the middle of the town.
“There was no medicine in hospitals, people were dying of things like malaria and the small children didn’t even have glucose to keep them going after the closure of most NGOs. It was very difficult. Now we can breathe.”
The same cannot be said of Al-Shabaab. The group’s best men are reported to have moved to alternative areas, including in Yemen and the north of Somalia, while key lines of income such as taxation in major markets, charcoal smuggling and trading routes from ports such as Mogadishu and Kismayu have been choked.
And in the last week of May, Afmadhow, Al-Shabaab’s most important logistical base some 120 kilometres southwest of Kismayu, fell to Kenyan and allied forces.
Afmadhow has a particularly fitting name for such a coveted target. It means a woman with black lips, a trait whoever named the town concluded was to be found among local women.
The town’s importance lies in the fact that all the major link roads from Kismayu to the rest of Somalia pass through the town, and its capture means that an onslaught on Kismayu – expected within weeks – leaves the Shabaab particularly exposed to the forces that have ringed the port city.
Little wonder then that at the frontlines, Kenyan officers are allowing themselves a moment of satisfied reflection as they prepare to move on to the final target of Kismayu.
Lt-Col Jeff Nyaga, who commands the troops at the frontline in Afmadhow, says Kenya’s fighting forces have proven that years of inaction were not a sign of weakness.
“The whole world has seen what we are capable of achieving. We have not just charged forward but have moved patiently, establishing new administrations everywhere we have gone and making sure the areas we have entered are completely pacified before going forward.
“We have done this with minimal casualties, and there is no doubt that Al-Shabaab’s capability is now seriously degraded and Kenya’s borders are more secure than they were before we moved in.”
In fairness, it is possible to understand the sceptics’ point of view when the military action started.
For centuries Somalia, like Afghanistan, had proved to be a graveyard for countries moving into its territory; it counts wars against foreign powers as early as 10 AD when locals rebelled against Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s of the Baghdad caliphate who had imposed unpopular taxation policies.
The Kenyan strategy has succeeded partly because it first sought to estrange the Shabaab from the local community by working with key elders from the Mohamed Zuber clan, the dominant sub-group in the Gedo and Jubbaland regions that border Kenya.
Apart from destroying Al-Shabaab bases in the towns they have captured, the Kenyans have also invested heavily in public diplomacy, explaining that they are not an occupying force and are only interested in getting rid of Al-Shabaab and getting local leaders to pick new administrations to replace the retreating Shabaab cadre.
Hassan Murser Maalim, the clinical officer at a small health centre in the middle of Afmadhow town which serves a population of more than 50,000 people, says locals are relieved to see the backs of the militants.
“This area has always been peaceful. Even when the civil war broke out in 1991 the situation here was calm because this area has only one clan.
“But things changed when Al-Shabaab came and started fighting with the (local) Hizb Ul Islam militia. Now people just want to go back to their normal lives and to see the many aid agencies that were removed by the Shabaab return.”
The attack on Afmadhow had been rumoured for months, but it was unclear when Kenya would move forward until they launched a lightning advance on May 30 from Beles Qoqani to Tabda and onwards to Afmadhow the next day.
It was the climactic moment of the seven-month war effort, the outcome of what Lt Col Nyaga calls months of deliberate preparation. Soldiers at the front spoke of a tough and painstaking advance from the day Operation Linda Nchi began.
The first time Kenya encountered enemy fire was on day two after they crossed the border when Al-Shabaab launched an attack to defend the border town of Dhobley only a few minutes drive from Liboi on the Kenyan side.
“The fighting was intense because it was one of Al-Shabaab’s strongholds,” says Lt Col Nyaga.
“It is the gateway to the refugee camp in Dadaab which is home to more than 500,000 people. It offers a ready market for goods from Kismayu and is also an important smuggling route.”
After Kenya seized the strategic towns of Delbio and Shabaab’s logistical base in Tabda, the militants decided to change tack.
Instead of confronting Kenya openly, they turned to guerrilla tactics, laying ambushes on convoys, attempting to shell bases and using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to slow the Kenyan advance.
After regrouping in Beles Qoqani, Al-Shabaab launched a major attack on the Kenyan forward operating base in Tabda on December 12; it was repulsed.
The next major “contact”, as the soldiers call the encounters between Kenyan Defence Forces and the Shabaab, was on January 10 when the Kenyans were moving supplies from the newly captured Beles Qoqani town to a base in Tabda.
Lt Peter Muriithi was at the head of that convoy and recalls vividly the pitched battle they endured.
“They ambushed us halfway across the 18-kilometre journey. There were about 100 of them, and they timed the IED to hit the first vehicle in the convoy.
“They then started firing from all directions aiming especially for the vehicles’ doors to stop us from leaving.
“They know that when Kenyan soldiers get out of the vehicles and face them they have no chance because we are better trained.
“After some time I and a few others got out after receiving covering fire and engaged them. They started pulling back, dragging the bodies of their dead into the bush with the Arafat garment (checkered scarf or kuffieh) they wrap around their heads.
“Sadly, one of them fired a tank-piercing bullet and it hit my friend Lt Evans Ng’etich and killed him, which was one of the most painful moments for me since the war started.”
That ambush was only one of many engagements between Shabaab and the KDF. These attacks took a similar pattern with Shabaab trying to penetrate Kenyan defences or attack their convoys and then withdrawing.
On April 4, however, the Shabaab tried something different. They massed hundreds of their fighters from Kismayu and farther afield for a major assault on the Kenyan base at Hosingow, which has a road link to Dadaab and another market centre, Amimo.
Somalia media reports describe it as one of the most pitched battles since the incursion began.
Al-Shabaab had assembled a force of up to 800 men, and one of their spokesmen, Mahat Mohamed Omar, told local radio that they were determined to recapture Hosingow.
Things did not go as planned for the Shabaab. Kenyan military intelligence had apparently got wind of the plot and prepared their defences.
For once, Al-Shabaab launched an attack on a base by day and the fighting lasted from 5.20am to 12.10pm.
Al-Shabaab attacked with their well- known arsenal of technicals equipped with Doshka 12.7mm machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and B10 anti-tank guns, moving forward in waves.
At the end of the day they failed to achieve their mission, and for the first time they abandoned many of their dead on the battlefield.
Fatuma Ali Yusuf, the mother of four and resident of Hosingow was quoted by Somalia Report describing heavy fighting:
“I heard the sound of the artillery shelling exchanged by both sides and followed by heavy gun shots after around 30 minutes. We were afraid and remained inside our house,” she said.
“The fighting was heavy, I have seen several bodies with Al-Shabaab uniforms but I can not exactly confirm the number,” said another, Kamal Farah Ali.
Lt-Col Nyaga describes that battle as a turning point, saying the scale of the losses by Al-Shabaab prompted many elders to recall their children from the group and accelerated their losses.
About two months later, the offensive towards Afmadhow began. It was not all smooth sailing. The convoy from Beles Qoqani to Tabda was again ambushed, very near the spot where Lt Ng’etich had been killed.
“They really liked attacking on that road because it has many bends and thick bushes,” said Lt Michael Ogeto, who was on the trip.
“They detonated an IED and started firing. I was with the OC (officer commanding) Patrick Mutuku and he managed to organise us to fight back. The standoff lasted 45 minutes before they gave up.”
The convoy moved on to Tabda. Al-Shabaab’s calculation, according to KDF officials, was that the Kenyans would spend a few days regrouping in Tabda before moving on to Afmadhow.
But the very next day they launched their attack, easily capturing the town without much resistance in an offensive which opens the way for the much anticipated push to Kismayu.