Kenya’s decision in October to send thousands of troops in to Somalia’s Jubba Valley to wage war on Al-Shabaab is, without doubt, the biggest gamble the country has taken since independence to advance its security interests.
The mere act is, in itself, a radical departure for a country that, since independence, has never sent its soldiers abroad to fight.
In militarising its foreign policy, Nairobi is signalling a historic policy shift designed to align its geostrategic aspirations with its political, military, diplomatic and economic clout.
Operation Linda Nchi is a gamble, because the potential for getting bogged down in Somalia is very high; the risks of an Al-Shabaab retaliatory terror campaign real and the prospects for a viable, extremist-free and stable polity emerging in the Jubba Valley slim — at least, in the short term.
Kenya is unlikely to heed any calls for a troop pullout, not least because it has invested a lot and its national pride is at stake.
What Kenya needs is modest progress in advancing its security and political goals.
Here is what Kenya should consider to improve its chances of achieving modest success and avoiding failure:
The nature of the enemy
Al-Shabaab is a formidable adversary that is resourceful, resilient, and adept at maximising its asymmetric advantage.
One tactical change has already become clear. Rather than fight head-on in open territory, Al-Shabaab has simply melted into the background, allowing thousands of Kenyan mechanised infantry units to move deeper into its heartland.
Al-Shabaab’s fighters are blending in with the civilian population and distributing weapons to them, especially in Kismayu.
This is a result of lessons learned during the last major intervention, by Ethiopia.
That time, in December 2006, Al-Shabaab deployed many of its combatants in the vast arid plains of south-western Somalia, to stop the Ethiopian invasion, only to be mowed down by ground and air fire.
It almost crippled the organisation, but it adapted, turning into an efficient guerrilla force.
Al-Shabaab also gained increasing support from Somalis, at home and abroad, because it was seen as the most effective force fighting a foreign and “Christian” occupation — not because of its extremist orientation.
Over three years it bled Addis’ resolve. Today, Al-Shabaab again wants to fight on its own terms.
It will most certainly seek to draw the Kenyan army into a vicious guerrilla war, principally in the city where Kenya’s technical superiority is minimised and it can use civilians as human shields.
How Kenya’s military will perform under such difficult circumstances is hard to divine.
In the “fog of war” many things could go wrong and the prospects for a quick and easy victory, followed by a swift withdrawal, as many hope, may prove unrealistic.
Furthermore, the likelihood of a badly mauled Al-Shabaab mutating into a more deadly foe exclusively devoted to terrorism cannot be discounted.
(It is also conceivable the group would move to now-relatively stable regions further north in a bid to find a new sanctuary).
The onus must be to minimise the risks of a protracted, messy and potentially unwinnable conflict.
The nature of the fight
Kenya’s biggest challenge is to prosecute an effective counter-insurgency campaign to degrade Al-Shabaab and progressively weaken its political and territorial control, without undermining its broader counter-terrorism goals.
This demands a heightened degree of sensitivity and caution in combat; tactical flexibility and adaptability in a complicated environment; resilience and determination to withstand setbacks and stay focused.
The military must resist the temptation to seek spectacular gains. It makes perfect military sense to target Kismayu port, considering its importance to Al-Shabaab, 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.
Not only will this deny Al-Shabaab critical revenue to pay and resupply its forces, it will also force the clans of Kismayu to reassess whether it is in their interest to side with the group.
Otherwise, all indications suggest the fight for Kismayu would not be easy.
Urban combat would be extremely costly, and a massive loss of civilian life hugely damaging to the goal of countering terrorism and radicalisation.
It would certainly undermine any political outreach strategy designed to undermine Al-Shabaab’s popular support.
The risks of internationalisation
The Kenya government has been keen to cast the decision to militarily intervene as part of the ongoing Western-led counter-terrorism struggle.
Many in the West privately admit a campaign to weaken Al-Shabaab may not be such a bad thing, even though they are apprehensive about the potential for blow-back.
This perhaps explains the modest covert Western support for the Kenyan military, exaggerated by the media, but nonetheless true.
Some officials have been hyping up the extent of this support. Some form of specialised combat and logistical support are crucial, but the downside is that increased Western involvement could inflame Somali passions; catalyse radicalisation and help Al-Shabaab’s attempts to revive its declining political fortunes.
The latest —and most ill-advised — example was the public trumpeting of increased Israeli counter-terrorism support to Kenya.
Al-Shabaab immediately exploited the announcement, announcing the Israeli assistance to Kenya was aimed at “destroying Muslim people and their religion”.
Prevent blow-back, protect social cohesion
Views within the ethnic Somali and wider Muslim community in Kenya regarding the war are mixed, but predominantly critical.
Even those now mildly supportive of the operation could easily become hostile, especially if things go horribly wrong and civilian deaths mount.
The notion that this is a popular operation within the Muslim community is wishful thinking. The potential of the conflict to exacerbate already worrisome radicalisation in Kenya is real.
The government must reach out to Kenyan Muslims to explain its mission and discuss how to mitigate risks.
So far, the police and the security services have shown commendable restraint.
This is laudable, but the crunch will come if Al-Shabaab carries through its threat to attack Kenya.
If this triggers a draconian crackdown, the consequences for inter-communal relations and societal cohesion and harmony will be grave.
Remember war is politics by other means
Kenya should recall Clausewitz’s famous dictum that any military campaign should serve to change the political calculations of the enemy.
In the case of Operation Linda Nchi that presumably is, at a minimum, to convince Al-Shabaab it is not in its interest to allow cross-border kidnapping or engage in terrorist attacks against Kenya, and, ideally, to induce its leaders— or the supporters they depend on —to negotiate an end to the conflict with the Transitional Federal Government and its allies.
It is important to remember that Al-Shabaab is not a monolithic organisation, but made up of disparate elements with divided loyalties to different leaders and separate clans (the much smaller group of foreign and jihadi fighters are a different problem).
It would be militarily extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate Al-Shabaab, so the focus should be to convince those clans and their leaders who currently support the group to change their allegiance.
The need for clear military goals
No-one doubts Kenya had core military objectives and a strategy to achieve them when it launched Operation Linda Nchi.
The problem is this has not been sufficiently articulated and the official line and rhetoric have been incoherent and confused.
In the early days of the offensive, official statements suggested the operation was limited and designed to stop tourist abductions that threatened a crucial industry.
This message evolved after it became clear many in Kenya and the international community were unconvinced and amid new concerns over terrorism.
Since then, some in authority have suggested the core goal is to eliminate Al-Shabaab (a much greater threat and one presumably prompting a more severe response).
Clearly, these are different aims, indicative of possible differences on strategy within the leadership.
There is an urgent need to bring clarity to the mission, not least because the current ambiguity could lead to mission creep — a situation in which goals progressively accumulate, requiring ever greater resources, time and commitment — or priorities could veer off tangent.
It is, therefore, imperative to clearly spell out the war aims and maintain the focus on the key objectives.
Since the start, there has been a tendency by officials to talk up the mission and to raise expectations.
Whether this stems from inexperience — as has been suggested — or is simply a function of reckless overconfidence, is a moot point.
Nothing has the potential to over-stretch and complicate the mission more than over-optimism. Ambition is fine, but it must be tempered by a realistic assessment of what is feasible.
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.
Aiming for a decisive military defeat would require a lengthy and costly stay, a prospect that is certain to undermine support, galvanise Somali opposition and prove unsustainable.
Building a regional consensus
Kenya’s decision to go to war has not gone down well in the region, despite the official statements of support.
There is a rift over the regional strategy to pacify Somalia and contain Al-Shabaab.
Unless this rivalry is tackled and differences resolved there is fear each country may seek to undermine the other, a prospect that will compound the political and security crisis in Somalia.
Addis Ababa’s initial fears over the Jubbaland plan— that Ogadenis there would support the Ogaden National Liberation Front fighting in Ethiopia — may have eased, but many doubt it is completely sold on the viability and wisdom of the entire project.
Kampala has troops in Somalia serving under AMISOM, is increasingly assertive and wants to be seen as the key regional partner in international policy on Somalia.
It does not really approve of attempts by both Kenya and Ethiopia to support proxy forces and create buffer regions, arguing such actions further weaken the interim Somali government its troops are dying to shore up in Mogadishu.
The TFG is divided over the matter and the President, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has publicly voiced his criticism, to the embarrassment of the Kenyans who all along maintained they had consulted with their Somali allies.
Kenya is unlikely to achieve its goals in Somalia unless regional divisions are addressed and a common strategy developed to stabilise Somalia.
Revisiting the Jubbaland/Azania project
The plan to create Jubbaland/Azania is controversial and much of the opposition to the intervention stems from fears it may not work.
It is not true the project is entirely Kenyan-conceived, and part of a “bottom-up” strategy to dismember Somalia.
Many inhabitants of Jubba have long desired an autonomous—not independent—regional state and this sentiment chimes with that of the majority of Somalis in the periphery, who have historically chafed under the domination of the centre.
Understood from this perspective, Kenya’s aim is not out of step with the wishes of many Somali clans in the region.
Crisis Group maintains that some devolution of power, be it real federalism or some other form of decentralisation, is necessary to address clan fears that they would otherwise be subjugated by rival clans.
Where Kenya got it wrong is in the manner in which they went about encouraging its establishment.
In handpicking Azania’s “President”, Prof Gandi, and a few other leaders and hastily legitimising them through an arbitrary process, Kenya opened itself to accusations of meddling.
Had Kenya stepped back, allowed the process to evolve organically, invested sufficiently in reaching out to where opposition is strongest, especially among the minority Wagosha and mixed-race communities in the centre and the coastal strip, it would have been possible for the Azania project to gain wider support.
The most stable regions in Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland, were only stitched together by slow and painstaking local peace and reconciliation conferences that built on each other to create larger and economically viable regions in which political power, revenue and resources are shared relatively “fairly” between subclans and clans.
It is not too late to embark on such an outreach, although Prof Gandi and his team will resist any attempt to unlock the process, but it is in their best interest to do so.
In addition, Kenya is working with both Prof Gandi and the former Al-Shabaab commander Ahmed Madobe to drive out Al-Shabaab, but the relations between the two men are far from amicable.
Indeed their forces have clashed in the past. Kenya needs to urgently initiate a process to create a lasting détente between the two camps and a mechanism for political cohabitation, otherwise they risk losing both allies.
The special status of Kismayu
The port is the lucrative economic engine of southern Somalia and home to three clans that have regularly clashed over its control.
Any durable solution to instability in southern Somalia—and the criminality it enables—must include a negotiated deal between these clans over the distribution of revenue and benefits generated by the port.
Simply allowing Madobe to take over and impose control would undermine Kenya’s long-term interests, since it would undoubtedly trigger further unrest in the city and the region.
With its military intervention, Kenya is now even more closely bound to the chaos in Somalia.
It can be part of efforts to stabilise the country, but to so do it must not impose a solution but provide the right political incentives for Somalis to be at peace with themselves, and the region.
Rashid Abdi is Horn of Africa Analyst and EJ Hogendoorn is Project Director, International Crisis Group