While Kenya's sweeping military intervention into Somalia shares the Obama administration's goal of dismantling the Al-Qaeda affiliated militant group al-Shabab, the campaign also carries the risk of exacerbating instability in the notoriously fractured country.
Al-Shabab has infuriated Kenya with a series of kidnappings on Kenyan soil even as its brutal rule over parts of Somalia has crumbled. The Obama administration has identified al-Shabab as a prominent security threat and the president has expanded drone strikes against the terrorist network. But military incursions into Somalia have a history of spurring violence in an already volatile country, including a 2006 U.S.-backed Ethiopian campaign that helped to mobilize al-Shabab in the first place.
Although the [Obama] administration is forced to if not actively assist at least condone what the Kenyans are doing -- certainly people understand why the Kenyans are doing what they're doing and one is forced out of necessity to assist them politically -- I think what they've done is make a problem worse by stirring up a hornets nest, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Atlantic Council.
Somalia has been unable to assemble an effective central government since the 1991 collapse of former president Mohamad Siad Barre's regime, and the intervening years have been marked by endemic violence and a series of famines. The United States has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into fortifying African Union troops deployed in Somalia and has backed the Mogadishu-based Transitional Federal Government, an attempt at centralized government that is weak and plagued by corruption.
A punishing famine has steadily turned Somalians against al-Shabab as the group worsened the crisis by blocking access to humanitarian aid and levying taxes on food, and Pham said that Al-Shabab has seen a near total collapse of their capabilities over the last six months. While Kenya had evidently been planning the current operation for some time - a government spokesperson acknowledged that the kidnappings were not the sole motivation but a good launchpad for a campaign that has been in the pipeline for a while - Kenya is poised to deal al-Shabab a potentially decisive blow.
There are two sides to this argument. One side is that Kenya, in combination with certain aspects of U.S. strategy that already existed, could end up pushing back and decimating al-Shabab, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization. The flip side is nothing rallies the Somalis like having a foreign invading force in their country that triggers nationalist sentiment and breathes new life into al-Shabab. So it's a risk and may be a terrible move.
The United States has cultivated a close relationship with Kenya, providing its security services with millions of dollars annually. The State Department has denied any involvement in the operation, saying only that the United States has provided capacity building assistance to help Kenya defend its land and maritime border against terrorist threats and armed incursion. Gartenstein-Ross cited separate sources who confirmed that the U.S. had knowledge of the campaign before Kenyan troops invaded.
What I understand is that Kenya initially sold this to the U.S. as a punitive and retaliatory strike in response to al-Shabab kidnapping Kenyans, so it was sold as a relatively small thing and it got big in a hurry, Gartenstein-Ross said. The reason may well have been that it broadened because Kenya didn't meet with much resistance as it went into Somalia so it decided to press on.
There is widespread frustration in Kenya over sharing a border with a failed state, both in terms of the kidnappings and in terms of an unabated flow of refugees that have made the refugee camp of Dadaab one of the largest cities in Kenya. Pham said part of the military operation's goal was to establish a buffer zone where humanitarian workers could operate safely. But even if Kenya succeeds in neutralizing al-Shabab, Somalia still will lack a credible government capable of unifying the country's plethora of antagonistic clans and religious factions.
The State Department has adopted what U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson has called a dual-track strategy of supporting the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu while also reaching out to regional and local actors, including authorities in the separatist regions of Somaliland and Puntland, as long as they oppose al-Shabab.
We believe that it is important for the Transitional Federal Government to reach out to broaden its base as much as possible, to bring in as many clan and sub-clan groups as possible, to include among its rank other moderate Islamist groups and Somalis who were not a part of that group, Carson told reporters in a 2010 briefing. I would think that any moderate Islamists who are seeking peace, who are denouncing al-Shabaab, and who want to be a part of a peace process should, in fact, be considered for inclusion in a TFG government.
But some observers doubt that pinning hope for stability on the Transitional Federal Government is a viable strategy, given its ineffectiveness and a longstanding distrust in Somalia of the United States' role in propping up various governments.
You have a transitional government that everyone who's not blind, deaf and dumb knows lacks total legitimacy and is almost 100% corrupt, Pham said, pointing to auditors determining that the Transitional Federal Government had misappropriated some 96 percent of the aid it received. It's better to peel off the various factions of al-Shabab and allow al-Shabab's collapse of its own weakness than to try and force such a regime down people's throats, which will only incite them.
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