Kenya’s Punitive Expedition One Month In
Lessons from History and Today's Reality
Kenyan Soldiers Unloading at Somali Border
Kenyan Soldiers Unloading at Somali Border

Plunging a country into war always creates secondary and tertiary effects. The early stages of a conflict usually bolster a government’s standing but as time, casualties and costs transpire, the cold economic and political reality soon cut through the initial emotion. Kenya has been lucky so far, only having nine soldiers killed, five of them from a helicopter crash, three from combat and one considered missing or drowned at sea.

More interesting, only three Kenya soldiers have been listed as wounded lending credence to the lack of intense engagement so far. Close quarters combat can deliver a ten to one ration of wounded to killed. Statistically so far, more Kenyan soldiers have died from operational accidents than combat. And more Kenyans have died from this decision inside Kenya than Somalia.

The deadly score in three skirmishes between Kenya and al-Shabaab has been Busar 6:1 and 12:1, and Sinai 5:1 in favor of Kenya. The Kenyan naval activities have been a little more vague with two attacks on fishing skiffs, one killing al-Shabaab members and the other appearing to have killed Kenyan fishermen by mistake. One Kenyan navy member is missing, presumed drowned. Conversely four Kenyans were killed in an ambush, two grenade attacks in Nairobi killed one and injured more than twenty, and seven Kenyan fishermen were gunned down by a Kenyan navy boat. That is 12 Kenyan civilians killed inside Kenya directly linked to the October 16th invasion versus 9 Kenyan soldiers lost in the fighting.

Despite desperate attempts to retrofit a legal foundation and hyperactive shuttle diplomacy to muster outside support, Kenya is not likely to change its mind, and will keep pushing forward.

Forward in this case is the Ogadani nomad town of Afmadow. As usual the real punishment seems to be against the Somali people. For two years the town has been occupied against their will by Islamic elements. About four hundred families initially fled to the border town of Dhobley.

The Kenya military presence over the last three to four weeks has pushed out about half of the 30,000 residents. They suffer in the rain with little access to supplies, surviving in makeshift housing about 15 kms from the town center. Aid agencies refuse to operate in the area and al-Shabaab is restricting the flow of essential goods to the displaced families.

After Afmadow, it is assumed that the next stop is the port of Kismayo, a city of around 150,000 inhabitants. The 2000 odd Kenyan troops and various hired militias will have a difficult time if al-Shabaab chooses to fight.

It remains to be seen what awaits Kenya in Kismayo, but history has shown that al-Shabaab prefers strategic withdrawal rather than pitched frontal battles. Once the Kenyans are in place, they can harass al-Shabaab at their leisure. These days, jihad is about time not intensity. Al-Shabaab and disaffected Somalis have plenty of that.

The Real War

The real war in Somalia is not against weak Islamic elements, but against the continuing downward spiral of Somalia's condition. To provide starker contrast of casualties, more children died in October (24 killed, 58 wounded). A quarter of a million Somalis still face "imminent starvation" according to the UN. On the bright side, in the region affected by the Kenyan incursion, the rate of acute malnutrition has declined from about 35% in August to about 29% in October. This is a function of aid agencies rather than Kenya's military action.

These combat casualties are infinitesimal compared to the deaths caused by hunger, disease and lack of sanitation in October. AMISOM and even NATO maritime fleets were originally created to protect the delivery of foreign aid to the Somalia people not to chase al-Shabaab. Kenya has only recently paid lip service to that goal.

The current Kenyan military has never fought a war, let alone and expeditionary urban, counter insurgency on behalf of another country. The Kenyan people are not used to being at war and despite the rationale that their tourism industry was under attack, there is now a sense of concern that maybe the Kenyans don’t “get it”. Shabaab was an outgrowth of foreign adventuring but not the main focus. The main focus has been to allow access to the vast number of Somalis who rely on emergency aid to survive. Even Kenya, home to the largest single foreign population of Somali refugees at Dadaab, seems to omit that goal from its many confusing public statements.

The crackdown on the Somali population in Nairobi and the massive Somali population inside Kenya, including al-Shabaab and al Qaeda members, are more likely to make Kenya the battleground rather than Somalia.

Political Engineering and Punitive Expeditions

The perspective from Nairobi is that Somalia is a historically troublesome neighbor and that Kenya has the quasi-legitimate authority to determine the destiny of the former colonial area known as Jubaland.

The specter of an semi-autonomous, Kenyan-controlled Jubaland has been addressed and badly received by the United States, the UK and the TFG. The idea that Somalis would voluntarily return to an archaic British East Africa colonial concept of a compliant buffer state has yet to be successfully sold to the international population. Jubaland was controlled by the Sultan of Zanzibar and ceded to the Imperial British East Africa Company in November of 1890. The region remained a chip in the East African poker game until Britain gave Jubaland to the Italians under the Treaty of London in 1915. Politics have evolved since then and it would be highly unlikely the international community would openly support colonial style partition using a puppet government 100 years later.

To be fair Kenya is not losing their war of choosing. Most rural Somalis in the border region would like to see al-Shabaab done away with. So if traditional measurements of “ground taken vs cost” is used the Kenyans are winning having driven to the outskirts of Afmadow and having cut off the traditional escape route of Ras Kamboni.

Kenya is not fighting a traditional war, they are not even battling an insurgency since it is not their country. Kenya is pursuing bandits into their lairs in the manner of many previous African punitive expeditions. To be successful the punisher must kill or render harmless the target, strip its resources and ideally bring home the leader in chains.

This is where Kenya's punitive strategy gets wonky. Al-Shabaab is a classic rebel group, living off the support or extortion of locals, rarely making a stand and eager to use IEDs, snipers and hit and run tactics. Punishing al-Shabaab requires them to be separate from the population and somehow structured enough to destroy using a traditional land based army.

Historically the Italians, the British, Americans and Ethiopians all learned this lesson first hand. Somalis, like Afghans, Chechens, Moros and other groups can be divisive in peace and united in warfare. If a nation wished to punish or mitigate the effects of cross border incursions then they must be quick, overpowering and clear in their objectives. It’s not even clear that there is a clear link between al-Shabaab and the kidnaps or murder of tourists and aid workers. It is even less clear what a “win” is for the Kenya army. Or how long they will remain in country to manufacture that “win”. Being an indigenous group that swells when foreign invaders attack, al-Shabaab has all the time in the world to figure out what the Kenyan’s are up to.

Punitive Expeditions in Somalia 101

The campaign that Kenya is fighting has been fought before. Except it was fought by the Ethiopian army backed by U.S. forces and it was against al Qaeda in January of 2007.

Pushed out of Mogadishu by the Ethiopian army, the Islamic Courts militia split into three groups and ended up fleeing essentially in the same areas the Kenya’s control now.

The Ethiopians had U.S. Army Special Forces advisors on the battlefield, U.S. Marines patrolling the Kenyan border, and a British fleet along with five U.S. warships (including the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower) provided support. Up in the sky were AC-130 gunships directed onto targets by CIA special activities close air support experts and the Ethiopian Air Force.

Another difference were the targets - the anvil and hammer approach was looking to surgically eliminate known members of al Qaeda not make political change. Al Qaeda members were seen fleeing out of Ras Kamboni and a number were hunted all the way to Puntland. Even with the intense focus of U.S. assets, it made little to no impact other than weakening the ICU and the Ethiopian ground presence creating al-Shabaab. There is no shortage of history for the Kenyan Army to study. Africa has seen a number of foreign forays to punish locals. Benin, Ghana and the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia which involved 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, 26,000 camp followers and over 40,000 animals. These gallant affairs, if not handled well, usually lead to unexpected consequences.

Kenyan military planners might be wise to crack a history book or two on punitive expeditions. Their model might be the 1900 punitive expedition against Mohammed Abdullah Hassan and his Dervish movement led by British Lt. Col. E. J. Swayne. The British launched an army of 1,500 Somali soldiers (commanded by 21 European officers bolstered by 15,000 Ethiopian regulars. The Dervishes successfully repulsed four different attempts until they were subdued two decades later but only by modern aircraft. The expedition led to uniting the Dervishes (who were an Islamic movement) and shaping them into the only independent nation in Africa by the end of World War One. A historical antecedent of the U.S./Ethiopian action creating al-Shabaab.

The Kenyans could also study the Italian punitive expedition against the Hawiye and Wacdaan in the Benadir region around current Marka, the center of al-Shabaab control.

Just before the end of the 19th century, 13 Italian soldiers and their porters were killed by Somali tribesmen in Lafole as they left their garrison in Mogadishu on November 26 and 27 1896. Italy had established a protectorate arrangement with the Sultan of Hobyo and wanted to explore the rivers in the area of what is now Jubaland.

The violent response to foreign incursion sparked a punitive expedition. Commander Giorgio Sorrentino as royal commissioner extraordinary for the Benadir was instructed "to provide for the security and tranquility of the region”. Sorrentino was also ordered to ”take whatever steps should appear indispensable for our dignity and for the security of the colony" an interesting and archaic echo of today’s action.

As Sorrentino launched the punitive expedition against the Wacdaan and Geledi tribes he was quoted as saying, “We’ve got a nasty cat to skin!, May God protect us!” His “energetic measures” launched the first colonial attack against Somali civilians in Nimow and burning down the village of Lafolé touched off decades of Somali attacks, robberies and harassment against the Italians despite signed treaties with compliant leaders. Once again a surprisingly simliar situation to today's Kenyan invasion with long lasted repercussions. It could also be argued that the American operation to capture Mohamad Farah Aideed in 1992 beyond their need to push through Mogadishu warlords was a modern day punitive expedition. Even the Ras Kamboni offensive against al Qaeda were also punitive in response to the embassy bombings. The former action led to “Black Hawk Down" and the latter campaign was part of what led to the creation of al-Shabaab. Somali anger and unity against outside interlopers is not new but Kenya is displaying some disturbing lack of "Lessons learned" in its chest thumping foray.

Meanwhile the military spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna proclaimed today, “we have won over the hearts and minds of the local communities.” It may be Kenyan hearts and minds he should worry about.