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Over the last month, there have been two horrific terror attacks in Kenya. While reading about the attack on the quarry in Mandera county on the Kenya Somalia border, my mind went back to the discussion I had on the possible objectives of the Kenyan invasion of Somalia. This was in October 2011. Am reproducing what I wrote then; some points (in red below) remain valid even now.

The stated objective of course is to make Kenya safe from attacks and abductions by the Al Shabab. In the recent past, Kenya has seen an increase in attacks / abductions of tourists from Lamu, a major tourism spot.  Last week there was an attack on a MSF vehicle near the refugee camp in Dadaab. Two Spanish aid workers have been kidnapped and their driver injured. All of this is hurting Kenya badly. Two reasons

  1. Tourism is a major source of foreign exchange income and a major contributor to the overall economy. The abductions and attacks have resulted in adverse travel advisories from various governments and a significant drop in the tourist traffic.
  2. Kenya comes across as a weak state which cannot prevent inimical organisations from across her borders crossing at will and operating blithely.

It is imperative that action be taken.

These attacks have to be stopped and confidence in security in Kenya restored. If this does not happen soon, the economy will take a bigger hit. The Kenyan shilling has depreciated appreciably, nearly 50%, over the last couple of months  and that is hurting badly. Further, Kenya is due to go in for elections in 2012 and at this time attacks on Kenya cannot be seen to be tolerated.

Which is why the Kenyan has declared war and deployed forces. Make no mistake – it is a war. It is not merely an action against a rogue outfit. Al Shabab controls huge swathes of land in Somalia and is the de facto government there. In fact this is a war in which the Somali government troops have joined hands with the Kenyans. It is in their interests that the Al Shabab strength be negated.

However, like all wars this is going to be difficult for Kenya. Very very difficult. There are many reasons

  • The Kenyan troops, though professional, are not really battle hardened. Kenya has not been in a significant war for decades.  All other countries in the region have experienced or are presently in a state of conflict. They have serious battle experience. The Al Shabab outfit has been in a State of war for years and years. They know what it is like.
  • War drains the economy – this is not something that Kenya can easily afford.
  • This will be a war where the two sides will have entirely different ‘rules of engagement’. The Kenyans will probably follow conventions whereas the Al Shabab will not.
  • This will be a war where battle fields are not defined but are embedded in civilian areas. There will be collateral damage, probably serious damage if the experience of Afghanistan is anything to go by. Kenya cannot afford collateral damages considering that they themselves have a sizeable  Somali population.
  • It wont take very long for Al Shabab to escalate this and give it a religious colour. That itself will ensure fighters, financial support and materiel from other countries. This is not a far fetched idea – it was seen when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006.
  • With reasonably porous and long borders, Kenya remains hostage to terrorist action within its borders. This is what the Al Shabab has already threatened.

Long and short is that the Kenyans know that this cannot be a long war. It has to be fast and decisive.

Which brings me to the possible objectives, different from the stated objective.

First possible objective

The Kenyans probably know that this war cannot be won. Look at what ihas happened to the military might of US backed NATO forces in Afghanistan. Different continent, slightly different context – same result.

I think that the Kenyans want to hit Al Shabab hard and fast and force them to negotiate. Negotiate that they wont target Kenya. That is all that Kenya will be concerned about at this juncture. The internal turmoil in Somalia is none of their business until it affects them, as it is affecting now.

Second possible objective

There are over 400,000 people from Somalia in refugee camps (most notably Dadaab mentioned in the news article) in Kenya. It is possible that the Kenyan army just wants to push the Al Shabab back from the border and create a buffer zone and move the camps back into Somalia.

Whatever the covert or overt objectives, this is likely to be a quick action that buys peace. Anything else will be disastrous.