Policy WATCH:Analysis
Linda Nchi: A First Quarter Review
By JAY BAHADUR 01/18/2012
Current Position and Players
Current Position and Players

Three months have now passed since Kenya launched its invasion of Somalia, codenamed Linda Nchi ("Protect the Country").

Though the invasion appeared to have been in the works for months, its precise timing, in October 2011, was ostensibly determined by a rash of kidnappings in northern Kenya, including the brutal abductions of Briton Judith Tebbutt and Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu.

Provoked by these blatant infringements of Kenyan sovereignty, the untested Kenya army was launched into the muck, literally. Three prongs of invading columns found themselves caught out in the rain, with roads rendered impassable. The Kenyan Defence Forces’ (KDF) primary objectives of taking Afmadow and Kismayo quickly fell by the wayside.

So the Kenyan army sits in Ras Kamboni and Burgabo, harried and harassed by al-Shabaab, angry tweeters and the rising public concern that this bold move has actually sparked another, more threatening, war inside Kenya itself.

Though its iron response scored the Kenyan government points with its public and with the local media, the decision to allow policy to be dictated by opinion polls in place of strategy calculation has had dire consequences for the country (despite the slow progress of the invasion, opinion polls are still holding out, however: a recent survey conducted by the University of Nairobi Institute of Development found that 82% of Kenyans supported Linda Nchi. Public opinion may change, however, once it becomes evident Kenya does not have the economic resources to sustain this war, which is draining its coffers at a rate of KES 210m ($2.4m) per month).

Handing al-Shabaab a Silver Platter

Prior to the Kenyan invasion, internal unity within al-Shabaab was at an all-time low. More significantly, the popularity of the organization’s “transnational” faction, headed by international jihadist Ahmed Ali Godane, was also at a nadir.

On October 4, 2011, militants under Godane’s command detonated a truck laden with explosives at the Hargaha and Samaha compounds in Mogadishu, killing a hundred people, including dozens of Somali students lining up to receive Turkish scholarships. The reaction from the Somali community was immediate and almost universally condemnatory. The rift between Godane and the nationalist faction within Shabaab, represented by Mukthar Robow (“Abu Mansur”) and Islamic Courts Union (ICU) founding father Hassan Dahir Aweys, grew wider. In response, the Robow/Aweys faction formed a new organization, Milatu Ibrahim, and began to focus on plans to create a Puntland/Jubaland style autonomous mini-state centered around the Rahanweyn homeland in Bay, Bakool, and Hiran.

It was a difficult prospect; much like colonial powers, Shabaab’s strategy has been one of divide and rule, empowering small and disenfranchised clans as a means of undermining the major clan structures. Clan animosity within Shabaab-controlled territory is intense and bitter, and arriving at a political concord would have been a difficult feat. Nonetheless, all signs pointed toward the Robow/Aweys faction being ready to deal with the TFG, as soon as it had a bargaining chip—in the form of a unified polity—to bring to the table.

The stature of the spoilers was diminished. Al-Qaeda’s influence within the group was waning; that Ahmed Godane was able to effectively assassinate an al-Qaeda lieutenant, Nairobi embassy bomber Fazul Mohammed, in June of last year was indicative of how the group’s influence in Somalia (and the world over) has declined.

The Kenyan invasion provided the Godane faction with exactly what it needed. In the face of a foreign enemy, al-Shabaab joined once again under the same banner. Plans for a semi-autonomous “Shabaab state” were shelved in favor of defending the territory itself from outright conquest.

And while Shabaab has been weakened by the combined KDF, TFG, and Ethiopian onslaught, an outright military defeat is not on the horizon.

There Be Dragons

The Kenyan invasion has stalled, and it has gone past the point where the KDF can blame bad weather and muddy roads. KDF forces seem unwilling to venture past Ogaden-clan territory, and the protection of recently turned TFG ally and Ras Kamboni Brigades commander Shiekh Ahmed Madobe. Beyond this “Ogaden Line” there be dragons, or so the Kenyan military seems to believe.

Hunkered down in Madobe’s safety bubble, the KDF’s handful of fighter jets (there are literally five of them) are content to carry out regular airstrikes against al-Shabaab targets in Gedo and Lower Juba, while the Kenyan government issues baseless casualty reports that tend to fall somewhere between 20 and upwards of 100 al-Shabaab casualties per onslaught. (A post-airstrike January 6 tweet from Kenyan military spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir announced, in typical fashion: "#OperationLindaNchi KDF jets pound Al Shabaab camp south of GARBAHARE, over 50 Al Shabaab killed, battle damage assessment to follow").

The human cost of Linda Nchi has been greatly understated, a product of borderline propaganda on the part of the Kenyan government. Official KDF casualty figures paint an absurdly blithe and unrealistic picture of Kenyan loss of life resulting from Linda Nchi, claiming a total of 11 KDF soldiers have been killed (five in a helicopter mishap), while eliminating over 700 al-Shabaab fighters (over a tenth of al-Shabaab’s estimated fighting strength).

To foster the false impression that the KDF is conducting such a ludicrously asymmetric war against al-Shabaab detracts from the sacrifice that Kenyan soldiers have made in support of their country’s national security.

Where Are the Drones?

Not only is the source of Kenya’s grandiose casualty figures a mystery, it may not even be the Kenyan air force carrying out the bombings. Kenya’s F-5 fighters employ Maverick missiles and bombs, not equipped with Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) guidance systems, and would likely have caused many more civilian causalities that what is being reported in the Somali press. Military sources who have spoken to Somalia Report believe that Kenya’s flybys are being used as smokescreens for missile strikes by far more accurate US and perhaps French drones.

Somalia Report is in the process of gathering hard evidence of munitions used and sources. Currently there is growing evidence that the “Kenyan air campaign” may be analogous to what we saw in Libya, where NATO (i.e. the United States) provided massive air and intelligence in support of ragtag rebel outfits on the ground.

The Kenyans themselves seem unsure about what mask they are wearing in Somalia. The Kenyan government’s original casus belli was never made explicit to the United Nations, as demanded by Article 51 of the UN Charter; the official justification given, that the TFG had invited the Kenyans in, was subsequently shown to have been invented out of whole cloth.

The objective of Linda Nchi has shifted from the outright protection of national sovereignty—justifiable under Article 51—to counter-insurgency (COIN)/”winnings hearts and minds,” to a humanitarian rescue operation, and now to a peacekeeping mission. Indeed, curiously little has been said about the Kenyan parliament’s enthusiastic December decision to place Kenyan troops under the AMISOM banner (and thereby receive AMISOM funding).

For a peacekeeping force, the KDF is woefully undermanned. The Kenyan army’s estimated 1,000-strong force is not nearly large enough to maintain peace, and fanning out amongst the civilian population would make Kenyan detachments extremely vulnerable to al-Shabaab attacks. Nor have the KDF shown any ability to support local governance or development.

Little progress has been made towards a key strategic objective: the seizure of the port city of Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s main pipeline for funds and supplies. One clear reason for the delay is that the KDF has no idea to whom to award the city—and more importantly, the port and airport—once Kismayo is captured. Both Sheikh Madobe and Barre Aden Hirale, an ex-TFG minister who once ruled Kismayo on behalf of the now defunct Juba Valley Alliance (JVA), are set on seizing the city for the Ogaden and Marehen clans. General Mohamed Said Hersi “Morgan,” an unindicted war criminal, is reportedly also following events closely from his Nairobi perch, hoping to sink his own talons into the city.

The Kenyan government is evidently aware that taking and dividing the spoils of Kismayo would be a bloody and protracted affair, and would likely bog down the KDF in a morass out of which it could not easily extricate itself. Yet if the fall of Kismayo is indeed a key objective of the KDF invasion, the Kenyans will eventually have to decide which way to jump.

Is Kenya Safer?

The overriding question when appraising the success of Operation Linda Nchi is a simple one: are Kenyan citizens safer as a result of the invasion?

The answer is equally simple: no, they are not.

Somali extremists have long had the capacity to carry out terrorist attacks within in Kenya. The Somali community within the country is simply too large, interconnected, and the Somali-Kenyan border too porous for security measures to be effective against the threat of a major extremist attack. Prior to the incursion, al-Shabaab had not yet carried out a large scale attack in Kenya, probably a result of the leadership’s calculations that such an attack was not in the organization’s interest —perhaps, one might speculate, because smoothing over internal rifts was higher on their priority list. Now that the intervention is already underway, al-Shabaab has little to lose.

Youth radicalization and al-Shabaab recruitment has been occurring inside Kenya for years. The Muslim Youth Centre (MYC) a Nairobi-based extremist recruiting outfit masquerading as a help center for troubled teenagers, has recently strengthened its public affiliation to al-Shabaab. The group’s chairman and one of Shabaab’s most active Kenyan supporters, the Kiswahili speaking militant Sheikh Iman Ali, was recently named head of al-Shabaab operations in Kenya by one of the group’s top potentates, Ahmed Godane.

While the announcement merely made official the role that the MYC, and Ali himself, had held with the extremist organization for years, it was a worrying signal. If the MYC has been planning a major terror attack that is on the verge of being implemented, Godane's public recognition of Sheikh Ali could be viewed as setting up the longtime Shabaab supporter to claim credit for the operation.

Indeed, many foreign governments, including Britain, have warned that a terrorist attack in Nairobi is imminent. Britain has placed Kenya under a travel advisory, a move criticized by the Kenyan government. Without setting off so much as a smoke grenade, al-Shabaab has already hit Kenya where it hurts: the tourism economy. An actual major attack in Nairobi could wreck havoc on the $800 million per year tourist industry, Kenya’s largest foreign exchange earner.

It’s already starting. Since Kenya sent troops into Somalia last October, grenade attacks, killings, and roadside bombs have been on the increase in northern Kenya, with at least 28 people killed and dozens injured in the northeastern cities of Wajir, Mandera, and Garissa, as well as the Dadaab camps. In Wajir, 25 people were reported injured when an hand grenade was tossed into a night club on Christmas Eve. In Garrisa, two grenade attacks on a downtown restaurant on November 24 killed five.

The Somali piracy front, at least, is safer—if you believe the absurd claims of the Kenyan military, which asserts that hijackings have become less frequent since it sent forces into Somalia. The correlation exists, but awarding Kenya’s rattletrap navy the credit due to the armed guard detachments stationed on board commercial vessels insults the intelligence of even Major Chirchir’s Twitter following.

But hey, it might just score a few more percentage points in the opinion polls.