Kenya talks glibly about al-Shabaab's spine being broken, but the geographic reach of the war is spreading
On Friday Kenyan jets inflicted what its military spokesman confidently described as one of the biggest losses to al-Shabaab, a Salafi jihadi group which controls much of southern and central Somalia. Kenya said it had killed 50 fighters of the group – a claim that was denied yesterday. But no one is in any doubt about the response. On Saturday, the Foreign Office said it believed al-Shabaab was making its final preparations for a terrorist attack on Nairobi. A police spokesman in the capital described al-Shabaab as a wounded buffalo – very dangerous.
Kenya's involvement in a war that has been raging in Somalia for the best part of 20 years is relatively recent. It sent troops in last Octoberafter a string of kidnappings and attacks which it blamed on the militants. They join troops from Ethiopia, a separate 10,000-strong African Union contingent made up of troops from Burundi, Uganda and Djibouti, and the forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu itself. And that is not to speak of the drones and the other special forces visitors scouring the land.
Kenya talks glibly about al-Shabaab's spine being broken, but the geographic reach of the war is spreading. Since its forces moved in, at least 30 people have been killed in attacks in north-eastern Kenya. This is all looking horribly familiar. In June 2006 the warlords were defeated by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a coalition that briefly began to bring pockets of Mogadishu to order, by popular consent. The UIC included some radicals with links to al-Qaida, but had moderates, too. Ethiopia and the US viewed it as a terrorist threat and Ethiopian troops swept in six months later. In Somalia, you get what you wish for. The invasion galvanised the radicals in al-Shabaab, who portrayed themselves as a resistance movement fighting a foreign power. They are doing the same again today, urging Somalis to rise up against the "Christian" invaders from Kenya. All restraint has disappeared. Far from fearful of triggering a larger Kenyan response – from what started as hot pursuit after the kidnappings in Kenya's coastal regions – al-Shabaab has nothing to lose. It killed more than 70 people in bombings in Kampala, Uganda last year, and it is likely to attempt the same in Kenya.
The efforts by Somalia's neighbours to rid the country of extremists would look more convincing if the TFG were remotely capable of protecting citizens against the worst famine in two decades, and of unifying the clans which are loyal to it. The current tumult in the TFG stems from a power struggle between the president, Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a man who rubber-stamps the decisions of his executive, and an increasingly powerful and ambitious former ally, Sharif Hassan. He was the speaker of the parliament until he was ousted in a vote by MPs last month. The prime minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, was forced to resign as part of a deal between the two rivals, but MPs have been unwilling to accept the result. When they voted for a replacement speaker, fighting broke out and the president dismissed the vote as illegal. The executive now recognises one speaker, while the majority of MPs support another. This is the latest saga of a government that lacks legitimacy. With just eight months to go before the country holds its first elections in two decades, the infighting is sure to get worse and more violent.
Even if al-Shabaab is defeated by the posse of armies hunting it, the TFG is in no position to unite a country shattered by war and famine. It is riven with clan rivalries. Far from supporting reconciliation, President Sharif and Sharif Hassan have undermined it. An estimated $2bn, one-third of the country's GDP, comes in through hawala or small money transfers, and yet $100m in remittances from the US are imperilledbecause of government rules blocking the funding of terrorist groups. Around 250,000 Somalis are still affected by the famine, but the money cannot get through. This is the quintessential failed state, whose failure foreign armies, militant fighters and venal politicians appear hellbent on continuing.
Source: The Guardian