November 8, 2011
Kenya’s Offensive Goes National
Since its opening salvo Operation Linda Nchi never had the look of a brief incursion. Although General Julius Karangi, Kenya’s Chief of the Defense Force, told reporters that “we acted as a country on the spur of the moment,” kidnapped aid workers and tourism provided expedient justification for a contingency assault.
Kenya’s security isn’t invalid, but it does depend on the mission Nairobi selected for southern Somalia.
Kenyan officials initially outlined their goal around clearing al-Shabaab out of Kismayo and southern Somalia. Where southern Somalia ends was left ambiguous to keep al-Shabaab on the defensive and create leeway in the mission. This process rattled President Sharif Ahmed’s suspicions of Kenya’s proxy, Mohamed Abdi “Gandhi” Mohamed, a former Somali defense minister and current “president” of Azania. The autonomous zone was rebranded from Jubbaland and announced in April at a ceremony in Nairobi.
For months Mohamed’s faction of the Ras Kamnoni Movement pleaded with Kenyan officials to hit al-Shabaab in Kismayo. al-Shabaab has already targeted the sensitive Azania in its propaganda campaign: "Let them not deceive you with Azania. It is a Christian state, take care.”
Operation Linda Nchi began clearer - and hazier - when spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir announced nine towns and cities under threat of Kenyan attack. Several are located along the Jubba River, over 100 miles from the Kenyan border, hinting at a sweep across Jubbaland rather than the contained Lower Juba. Three other towns - Baraawe, Baidoa and Afoogye - lie hundreds of miles over the river. Chirchir didn’t specify a ground or air assault in his warning, but these areas will require both.
Kenyan officials are generally saying all the right things in Jubbaland after Ahmed rocked the political boat. Kenyan forces came to assist in Somalia’s liberation, and territorial authority would be handed over to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Tensions reportedly eased since Somali premier Abdiweli Mohamed Ali returned from Nairobi, where he held meetings with Kenyan leadership and foreign representatives. The Azania option has reportedly taken a back seat due to existing concerns, but doubts in the TFG’s governing capabilities and Azania’s equally questionable council remain unresolved.
The scale of Operation Linda Nchi is growing by the day, generating what could be the best or worst case scenarios in Somalia.
Operation Linda Nchi’s size caused widespread concern before its front advanced beyond the Jubba River. Some of these fears may be exaggerated if Kenya’s operation fits within a long-term, regional campaign. Somalia's TFG, its neighbors and regional blocs (African Union and IGAD) envision a year-long operation running through August 2012, when elections are scheduled under the TFG’s expiring mandate. AU reinforcements will land in Mogadishu and, if all goes according to plan, Kismayo. From here each force would attempt to inflate the security bubble around their respective population centers. Opponents of asymmetric actors cannot run from COIN laws, and Kenya shouldn’t try to fit a protracted mission into a smaller window.
An extended stay is necessary to control the environment rather than the enemy, and premature withdrawal will yield instability. Too short often becomes too long in COIN, one of its many dangers.
Kenya’s looming problem is mission drift. A year-long campaign made sense in Lower Juba (and the Jubba River offers a natural front), but Jubbaland more than doubles the contested territory and takes Kenya deep into al-Shabaab territory. This strategy risks the failure of Ethiopia’s national offensive. Despite these conditions Kenya is preparing for a large operation, judging by its troop movements. The original battalions of 1,600 men are now estimated between 2,500 and 3,000, with a ceiling as high as 6,000. Two more convoys recently left Garissa, one headed north towards Dhoobley’s crossing and the second towards Hulugho, near the Kilbio crossing.
"We are set for the mother of all the battles,” said the Kenyan source. “It's no longer jet fighters alone that will fight them, we are all moving to hit al Shabaab.”
Such statements hint at a ground offensive up to the towns Chirchir designated for attack. Instead of the northern flank converging on Kismayo after assaulting Afmadow, a reinforced column will likely move towards the Jubba River as the southern flank targets Kismayo. More troops would follow these units to secure the inner territory and push the front northward.
In al-Shabaab’s words, it is "apparent that the operation is not simply an attempt to defend Kenya's territorial boundary as they claimed but rather a clever camouflage for the full-scale invasion of Somalia.”
The group’s fighting tactics will slow Kenya’s advance not by fighting, but by not fighting. Keeping in mind the vagaries of Somalia’s reporting environment, al-Shabaab appears to have undergone a phased response to Kenya’s invasion. The first movements away from camps resulted in a scramble to check their territory. Kismayo residents reported an empty town after al-Shabaab ferried part of its garrison to Afmadow, where Kenyan officials were already hyping a big battle. Located along the Lagh Dera, Afmadow functions as a choke-point to Kismayo and is equally valuable to both sides. al-Shabaab fighters began entrenching themselves as if prepared to do battle, while locals reported fighters in the area’s thick brush, but a fight didn’t immediately develop.
al-Shabaab then began to shift its forces to the border and around Kenya’s columns, employing a harassing campaign instead of serious resistance. This strategy makes sense despite its low frills. Fighting a conventional enemy head on violates the laws of guerrilla warfare, and al-Shabaab is staging pin-prick assaults along Kenya’s border and inside its territory. While conventional forces would attempt to repulse a conventional force at the border, unconventional forces draw their opponent inside their territory seeking a war of attrition. Avoiding Kenyan forces head on is al-Shabaab’s best chance of survival.
Naturally that includes ground and air operations, and Somalia’s airspace is rearranging the battlefield on multiple levels. Those Somalis who initially considered themselves beyond Kenya’s area of operations - residents in Baardheere, Baidoa and Afgoye - now fear an air-strike at any time. These cities were fairly stable despite al-Shabaab’s misrule, and must now decide whether to flee or remain in danger. Kenya will feel the ramifications in the process. Regardless of the final outcome to Kenya’s airstrike in Jilib, its civilian casualties are now rolling around in the minds of Somalis.
Nairobi’s preemptive warning also split al-Shabaab’s forces in towns beyond the Jubba River. Ahmed Nour, a resident of al-Shabaab’s Baidoa stronghold, told Reuters, "I am sure Kenyan jets will fail to know who to bomb or not - the fighters have scattered.”
However al-Shabaab must eventually mount a resistance around the towns under immanent threat: Afmadow and Kismayo. These cities represent al-Shabaab’s real front line, rather than Kenya’s border, and they won’t be abandoned without inflicting a cost on Kenya’s forces. Kismayo residents speak of al-Shabaab arming locals, digging trenches inside the city, and positioning heavy and anti-aircraft guns on the roofs. These measures will decrease the size of al-Shabaab’s targets as its fighters intertwine themselves with civilians. Eritrea’s suspected package of small arms and explosives has also extended Nairobi’s mission time-line, according to local reports.
The group may not put a great effort into holding territory if Kenya is allowed deeper into Somalia, but each battle could take weeks or even months. Clearing operations, Kenya’s stated goal, will demand additional time.
Operation Linda Nchi is beginning to drift and must be regularly corrected to achieve its strategic objectives. While an isolated operation in Lower Juba would leave al-Shabaab free to operate inside the rest of Jubbaland and southern Somalia, such a mission also held the highest probability of success. The 10 months between now and August may be necessary to clear and hold the tip of southern Somalia, let alone the six administrative regions under al-Shabaab control (Lower Juba, Middle Juba, Gedo, Bay, Bakool and Lower Shabele).
Unsure of its capabilities to prosecute a regional offensive, Nairobi finds itself in caught in a typical COIN dilemma. Kenyan officials face the awkward decision of going too big or too small.