As I noted last week, many observers feel pessimistic about the long-term prospects of Kenya’s invasion of southern Somalia. In the short term, however, Kenya is making gains against al Shabab, the Muslim rebel force that operates in the region.
Fierce fighting is expected this week in the towns of Afmadow (see this map, and more reporting here) and Kismayo, (map). Kenyan planes bombed Kismayo this weekend. Taking these towns would deprive al Shabab of some of its key remaining strongholds, and could push the rebels into more remote areas.
Kenya is reportedly receiving Western military aid in its campaign:
Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, said that the United States or France, or possibly both, had stepped up airstrikes in the past few days, killing a number of Shabab militants. The French Navy has also shelled rebel positions from the sea, Kenyan officials said.
The United States and France have not confirmed involvement in Somalia.
If Western military powers have indeed joined the conflict, analysts said, it could mark a turning point against the Shabab, a ruthless militant group that has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. It controls much of southern Somalia, though its young fighters and battered pick-up trucks are deemed no match for a sophisticated army.
US officials are actively discussing how best to help Kenya.
If Kenya and its allies succeed in taking territory from al Shabab, the question will be what comes next. Will Kenya attempt to hold this territory? If so, the estimated 2,000-3,000 troops it has deployed may not be enough for the task. Next, what role will Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which has de jure authority over southern Somalia, play in administering this territory? Will Kenya, in conjunction with the TFG and African Union troops, attempt to wipe out al Shabab completely, or will Kenya be content to take major cities and drive al Shabab into the bush? How, in other words, will Kenya avoid the mistakes Ethiopia made during its occupation of Somalia from 2006 to 2009, when it smashed Somalia’s Islamists but then faced persistent guerrilla attacks? The Kenyan press, meanwhile, is asking about the exit strategy.
Kenya seems poised to make gains on the battlefield. But the tricky politics of southern Somalia could prove harder to navigate.
Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has said his transitional government is opposed to Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia.
Speaking to journalists at the scene of recent fighting in Mogadishu, Mr Ahmed said Kenyan support in terms of training and logistics was welcome but his government and the people of Somalia were opposed to the presence of the Kenyan army.
The BBC’s East Africa correspondent, Will Ross, says his comments put the Kenyan government in a very difficult position.