from Africa in Transition

Is the West Helping Kenya on Somalia?

October 24, 2011

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Sub-Saharan Africa


Kenya troops move supplies from a helicopter at the Garrisa airstrip near the Somali-Kenya border October 18, 2011. (Gregory Olando/Courtesy Reuters)

The New York Times quotes a Kenyan military spokesman as saying “one of the partners” supported the recent Kenyan air strikes that killed some al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. In the aftermath of Libya, such a statement sounds plausible.

But U.S. officials have said they had no prior warning of Kenya’s incursion into Somalia. The U.S. ambassador to Kenya did say that while the United States would not send its troops to Somalia, it would “go out of its way” to help Kenya to restore its territorial integrity that has been compromised by al-Shabaab attacks and kidnappings in Kenya. The Kenyan offensive is entitled Operation Linda Nchi, Kiswahili for “protect the country.”

On October 23, a Kenyan official said that a French naval ship had shelled Koday, a city in south Somalia.

Both the United States and France have intervened before in Somalia against al-Shabaab or piracy. Nevertheless, I find credible U.S. statements that it was not informed in advance of the Kenyan incursion and the American ambassador’s statement that no U.S. troops are being sent to Kenya. That, however, does not rule out U.S. intelligence support that could be seen as a regular part of the close Washington-Nairobi defense relationship. I do find credible Kenyan hints of more muscular French involvement in the aftermath of President Sarkozi’s (and popular) outrage at the kidnapping and, in effect, murder of French feminist, quadriplegic, and cancer survivor Marie Dedieu.

But such assistance, if it is happening, is unlikely to ensure Kenya’s definitive success in Somalia.  Already there are reports that a Kenyan drive to the al-Shabaab stronghold of Kismayu was bogged down in the mud caused by exceptional rains. The Kenyan incursion, if understandable in terms of its sovereignty, national pride, and the viability of tourist industry, remains very high-risk. There is also Kenyan anxiety about a potential “fifth column” of al-Shabaab supporters among the substantial Somali population now living in Nairobi. On Sunday, there was a late night grenade attack at a bar in Nairobi with significant casualties; local authorities are already blaming the attack on al-Shabaab.