Let Somalia be: Al Shabaab is their baby, not ours

July 1, 2009 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Kenya – I wish to comment on the numerous editorials by journalists in the mainstream media on the current fighting in Somalia. Allow me to do so passionately because I am a trained military officer who did the ropes, served his time and left the military early to pursue other interests.

First, I am amazed at the level of ignorance displayed by many Kenyan journalists on military issues and matters regarding war. I thought that all journalists are taught the basics on every conceivable subject that they write on, but anyway that is for another day.
Many (journalists) seem to support the idea that Kenya should send its armed forces to Somalia to fight the Al-Shabaab. My question to them is, go to war over what and why? What dispute does Kenya have against the group or the Somali populace who support the militia? What would be the justification of waging war against a loosely held group of outlaws seeking to overthrow the government of Somalia? The current war in Somalia is an internal armed insurrection that does not warrant intervention by a neighbouring state.

It is not Kenya’s problem that the fledgling government in Mogadishu is too weak to deal with an internal armed insurrection, neither is it the responsibility of the Republic of Kenya to shore up a government that the Somali people consider a puppet of some foreign power(s). Al-Shabaab cannot thrive if the citizens of Somalia or a sizeable population thereof do not believe in its cause. The militia is thriving because there are certain sections of the Somali populace who are persuaded by its declared cause and are offering active support and comfort to its members and fighters. A militia force is not a conventional static force; it is ever active and lives and thrives amongst a complacent populace and “eats” from them.

Al – Shabaab and many other armed groups in Somalia have raised the issue of legitimacy against the government of Sheikh Ahmed. This is a complex matter and as you rightly put it, even Ethiopia failed to pacify the warring factions in Somalia over a two-year period. For starters, it is important to know that when you are fighting an internal armed group, it is not enough to capture territory and grounds of tactical importance; you must win the war in the minds and hearts of the people too.

Ethiopia failed to do so and this is why the issue of legitimacy has stalked the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) since Ethiopia’s invasion. The United States is facing similar issues in Iraq and Afghanistan despite its enormous military might. I highly doubt that Kenya would fair any better compared to Ethiopia. 

It is important for those who are propagating war against Al-Shabaab to understand that no government can competently administer a territory if there is lingering question over its legitimacy. This is a question which Somalis alone must address. The TFG has consistently failed to marshal international support and recognition owing to lingering questions over its legitimacy. Their war over the legitimacy of the TFG is their war and not Kenya’s.

Kenya’s intervention will not solve this issue; it might even escalate it considering that Nairobi is the rear tactical and logistical base for all of Somalia’s politicians, militia commanders and their backers.
Secondly, just suppose Kenya were to intervene in Somalia to fight the Al-Shabaab and shore up the TFG; where will be the front? Many war mongers do not seem to remember that Kenya has a 1200 km frontier with Somalia which is largely un-policed and highly volatile. What ground of tactical importance would our armed forces seek to hold against the militia? A militia group is not static or encamped force; it is a highly mobile, agile and versatile amorphous force which periodically mutates depending on the nature of the threat at hand. It is obvious that Kenya would be stretched to protect its civilian population and installations against retaliatory incursions by the militia.

How would Kenya deal with the armed and non-armed members of the group? Would they be considered prisoners of war and therefore entitled to the privileges accorded to POWs under the Geneva Conventions? And if so, where would they be incarcerated during the war period? Or would they be handed over to the TFG for “trial”.  Before anybody beats the drums of war, they should think about the withdrawal strategy. Al-Shabaab is fighting a proxy war funded by foreign powers and wealthy merchants and is likely to stake it out as long as the purse strings remain open. Unless Kenya is willing to put itself in a similar position as the USA is in Iraq and Afghanistan, then war against Al- Shabaab is not a worthy venture.

Finally, any support for the option of war against Al-Shabaab should be accompanied by a personal declaration that one is willing to be conscripted or have his children, siblings and other relatives conscripted for war. Anyone who imagines that the current standing Kenyan army will be sent to be the front to fight Al-Shabaab is an ignorant day-dreamer.

Read the Armed Forces Act, Cap 199 well and you will know that a declaration of an international armed conflict between Kenya and another state will be followed immediately by massive conscription of young people who will be sent to the war front to become cannon fodder.  Any volunteers?
I have a reserve liability of about 15 years and it is likely that I would be called out for military service in the event of a long drawn war. I would not honour such a call from the Commander-in-Chief because I hold the view that going to Somalia to fight any group is an unjustifiable misadventure which will serve no veritable cause apart from massaging the egos of war-mongers who will be watching the children of the poor die in the war front from the comfort of their villas.

(Collins Wanderi is a retired military Captain and an advocate of the High Court)


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