Over the weekend, Kenyan forces entered Somalia in response to the recent kidnappings of two European tourists (one of whom has since died) and two Spanish aid workers. As I wrote when Kenya began boosting its presence on the border last week, Kenya has economic as well as security interests in preventing incursions from Somalia: the kidnappings are already taking a toll on Kenya’s economy. Mutuma Mathiu, Managing Editor of Kenya’s Daily Nation, undoubtedly speaks for many Kenyans when he headlines his column, “Kenya has no choice on this matter of al Shabaab; the war must go on.”
Kenya is reporting progress so far. But much of the international news coverage and analysis is tilting toward pessimism. The precedents of the US intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s and the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from late 2006 to early 2009 loom as examples of powers who tried – and failed – to pacify Somalia by force. The suicide bombings conducted by Somalia’s al Shabab rebel movement in Uganda in 2010 – undertaken as revenge for Uganda’s role in supplying troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – stand as another reminder of the risks outsiders take when they get involved in Somalia. Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, warns that if the mission drags on, Kenya could become entangled in a long and fruitless intervention. Finally, AP reports that “Kenyan troops surprised U.S. officials by entering Somalia last weekend, even though the U.S. had urged Kenya to take measures to improve security along its border with Somalia following a spate of kidnappings.”
The pessimism springs largely from the operational and political difficulties inherent in the mission. Weather, al Shabab’s superior knowledge of the terrain, the complex political landscape of southern Somalia, the fatigue of Somalis with outside interventions, and many other factors could combine to hamper Kenyan efforts.
Annan, I think, speaks from wisdom, and ultimately his perspective makes the most sense to me. Now that the invasion has begun, Kenyan authorities will have to decide what form it will take. A quick mission could achieve limited goals such as inflicting pain on al Shabab and securing the border. But a longer mission could drag Kenya into a quagmire.