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[Dehai-WN] Imaverick.co.za: Somalia May Be Kenya's Afghanistan, but Its Army Doesn't Get It

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Wed, 25 Jan 2012 16:51:28 +0100

Somalia May Be Kenya's Afghanistan, but Its Army Doesn't Get It

Simon Allison

25 January 2012



Kenya just doesn't seem to get it. Lost in the minutiae of military detail,
a Kenyan army colonel claimed they were at the halfway point of their
mission to rid Somalia of Al Shabaab. Have they learnt nothing from
Afghanistan? Iraq? Vietnam? Weapons don't win wars any more, and until Kenya
and its African allies figure out a political solution, Al Shabaab isn't
going anywhere.

Colonel Cyrus Oguna was in a confident mood as he spoke to the media outside
the headquarters of the Kenyan department of defence, a building
conspicuously far from the frontlines of Kenya's war against Al Shabaab, the
Islamist militant group that controls much of southern Somalia; this might
explain Oguna's hopelessly misplaced faith in what his military has
achieved: "As we are speaking now, Al Shabaab is halfway in the pit.

The targeting has been on logistics bases and command centres, and (these)
are crucial in any operation. And if you cripple a logistics base and
command centre, the war is halfway won."

Colonel Oguna's confidence was born of a successful few days of action as
far as the Kenyan military was concerned. An air strike destroyed an
important Al Shabaab base in the town of Bibi, while another took out six Al
Shabaab commanders and a number of foot soldiers. Among the bodies was that
of Bilal El Berjawi, considered one of the group's most senior figures. And
also in the last week, a new offensive from the African Union troops in
Mogadishu consolidated even more of the capital under the control of the
African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom).

But Colonel Oguna's confidence is mistaken. Even just militarily, the task
ahead of Kenya and Amison remains daunting. Kenya's troops, invading
southern Somalia from the west, have made little progress in the four months
they've been there. And Amisom's gains reveal its weakness: not even
Somalia's capital is completely secure, despite the presence of Amisom's
9,000-plus soldiers. Meanwhile, Al Shabaab has not been quiet. It launched a
little invasion of its own when around 100 Al Shabaab fighters overran a
police post in Kenya itself, destroying it and kidnapping three men. And
it's been fighting hard to overturn Amisom's gains in Mogadishu, although so
far Amisom has been able to retain its position.

More importantly, Al Shabaab continues to control most of southern Somalia,
including the vital port city of Kismayo, its de facto capital, and the
transit town of Afmadow, which is reported to be littered with hastily dug
trenches and bunkers in preparation for a major showdown.

The group is also bolstering its ranks by press-ganging young men into
military service. One report claimed 200 "young boys" had been abducted from
a town near Mogadishu and commanded to participate in Al Shabaab's "jihad"
against Kenya, Amisom and the internationally recognised government of
Somalia. Clearly, there's plenty of fight left in Al Shabaab, making Oguna's
"halfway" estimate look nearly as silly as George W Bush's infamous "Mission
accomplished" speech.

But this war is not just about military might. Iraq is a rather instructive
example. War has changed in the last century and possession of the biggest
guns is no longer sufficient to guarantee victory.

America went into Iraq in 2003 with the most fearsome military this world
has ever seen, effortlessly swatting away Saddam Hussein's ill-equipped and
poorly motivated army. But, as Bush was to discover, this conventional
dominance couldn't win the war and certainly couldn't keep the peace.
Instead, opponents of US involvement in Iraq, which included a broad range
of dissatisfied players from Shia Muslim clerics to al Qaeda's Iraqi
offshoot, waged a modern guerrilla war which made Iraq almost impossible to
govern and killed hundreds of thousands of people. Suicide bombers,
improvised explosive devices and routine abductions were the weapons of the
new conflict, and they proved almost impossible to defend against. Similar
tactics were used in Afghanistan by the Taliban, and much earlier in

What ties these three contexts together is each has been characterised by a
foreign invading army seeking to destroy an ideology that it finds
threatening. In Iraq and Afghanistan, this was the US trying to eliminate
Islamic fundamentalism as practised by the Taliban and al Qaeda, in Vietnam
it was trying to stop the spread of communism. And in Somalia, it's Kenya
and Amisom (with some rumours of tacit US support) seeking to wipe out the
radical beliefs of Al Shabaab.

But history has shown us that foreign military intervention is a notoriously
poor tool at eliminating a strong ideology. Men with principles will fight
on, even when battle after battle is lost. Even if Kenya and Amisom advance
swiftly through southern Somalia, marching all the way to Kismayo, the
threat from Al Shabaab -already trained in suicide bombings, IEDs and
abductions - will continue. While Al Shabaab is not universally loved, it
does command some strong support, and will be able to easily disappear into
local communities, to plan its next assault. And all the while, Somalia will
remain in chaos, unable to develop its economy or build lasting institutions
of governance.

The solution lies not in guns and bombs, but in politics and negotiations.
Al Shabaab, for all its sins, cannot be completely demonised because like it
or not it represents a significant chunk of the Somali population. And
remember, its radical and violent streak was an almost direct result of a
previous foreign intervention in Somalia which dismantled the government of
the Islamic Courts Union. For Kenya's involvement in Somalia to really be
halfway over, it would need to be sitting across a negotiating table from Al
Shabaab and the other main actors in Somalia's fragmented political space,
thrashing out the details of a functioning state and government that
represents all Somalis.

Perhaps Kenya will be able to use its military prowess to force Al Shabaab
into such an arrangement. This is the only outcome that could provide
immediate peace and order in the country. It's unlikely to even be an
option, however; Kenya appears determined to destroy Al Shabaab completely,
an almost impossible goal, and has bought into the dangerous international
narrative the notion that groups like Al Shabaab cannot be negotiated with
or included in unity governments. If it intends to see this goal through,
Kenya's military should expect to be occupied in Somalia for many years to
come and, eventually, Colonel Oguna will look back on his claim that "the
war is halfway won" as a moment when Kenya's pride and ambition exceeded its
grasp of political reality.


iMaverick is South Africa's first daily tablet newspaper and includes
coverage from the Daily Maverick and Free African Media. To subscribe, go
to: www.imaverick.co.za <http://www.imaverick.co.za/> .



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