Kenyan military forces are reportedly fighting Oct. 18 for control of the Somali town of Afmadow, two days after Kenya began an offensive against Somali Islamist militant group al Shabaab. A recent spate of kidnappings and killings committed by Somalis in Kenyan territory triggered the invasion, though al Shabaab has denied responsibility for the acts. Nonetheless, after years of rumors that Kenya planned to militarily establish a buffer zone to contain the al Shabaab threat emanating from Somalia, it appears that the process has now begun. It is not yet clear, however, whether Kenyan forces intend to push all the way to the coastal city of Kismayo, one of al Shabaab's main strongholds.
Kenyan military forces are currently engaged in a two-pronged offensive in southern Somalia targeting Islamist militant group al Shabaab. Since July, a rash of kidnappings and killings in Kenya near the Somali border has left four foreigners and three Kenyan nationals missing, another foreigner dead, and a Kenyan national in the hospital. Al Shabaab denies involvement in these incidents, and it is unclear what group or individuals are actually responsible. Nairobi is concerned that the recent use of southern Somalia as a base to launch kidnapping missions into Kenya will persist or worsen. Rumors have circulated for years about a purported plan by the Kenyan government to create a buffer zone along the border with Somalia. Such a buffer zone could lessen the threat posed by al Shabaab and other Somali militants. The current military operation appears intended to establish this buffer, but it is unclear how deep into Somali territory Kenyan forces intend to push — in particular, whether they will attempt to take Kismayo. The port city is a critical al Shabaab stronghold and its seizure could severely damage the militant group, but the relatively small number of Kenyan soldiers reported to be involved in the operation would find it difficult by themselves to take and hold the city.
Status of the Offensive
Kenyan troops have reportedly reached the Somali town of Afmadow, 120 kilometers (75 miles) across the border. The town is the most recent in a string of locations, including Qoqani, Tabda and Dhobley, taken in the main Kenyan advance. The secondary front is farther north, in Somalia's Gedo region, and is currently focused on securing the area around El Wak. Deploying a reported total of 1,600 total troops divided into two battalions, the Kenyans have utilized heavy artillery, helicopters, jets and tanks in the operation. While southern Somali militias allied with the Mogadishu-based Transitional Federal Government (TFG) have also participated, Kenyan troops are doing most of the heavy fighting in the assault, dubbed Operation Linda Nchi, or "Protect the Country." (click here to enlarge image) The offensive was precipitated by a number of incidents near the Somali border. Kenya has long struggled to maintain control over this part of its territory, which is home to a large number of ethnic Somalis, and Kenya's reliance on ethnic Somalis to patrol the area has led to infiltration by groups opposed to Nairobi. The most recent border incident was the Oct. 13 kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from Kenya's Dadab refugee camp in which their Kenyan driver was shot in the neck by Somali gunmen. Though the Spaniards' whereabouts are unknown, they were last seen in vehicles driving toward Somalia. On Oct. 1, a French woman was reported abducted from her home on the Kenyan coast on Manda Island, near Lamu, 90 kilometers from the Somali border. Her abductors reportedly engaged in a firefight with Kenyan security forces as they fled by speedboat back to Somalia. The Kenyan government claims to have killed two of the abductors but was unable to halt their escape, and they are believed to have fled toward Kismayo. The incident at Manda Island was similar to one Sept. 11 in Kiwayu, another Kenyan island just north of Manda Island. Somali gunmen arriving on speedboats attacked a British couple in their home, killing the man and kidnapping the woman, before heading back to a location in Somalia — likely again Kismayo.
The Significance of Kismayo
As the recent kidnappings have shown, the threat to Kenya emanating from Somalia is not only land-based. A hole in Kenya's maritime defenses leaves the country's coastal areas vulnerable. A true buffer zone would have to include Kismayo, the largest Somali population center south of Mogadishu and al Shabaab's primary port. Kenya has not formally declared Kismayo a target, but its rhetoric indicates this is a possibility. Army spokesman Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir said Oct. 18 that after Afmadow, "the next town is Kismayo," adding that the "[Kenyan] troops are ready for anything. If it takes us to December they are willing to celebrate Christmas there." A push on Kismayo would be significantly more difficult than taking the lightly populated areas on the road to Afmadow, and it is not evident that Kenya has the means to accomplish the task. The number of troops reportedly involved in the operation — 1,600 — would not suffice, especially to take a city as strategically important to al Shabaab as Kismayo. Nairobi cannot fully rely on allied Somali militias, nor can it expect any help from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces stationed in Mogadishu. In an effort to fend off a potential Kenyan advance, an al Shabaab spokesman warned Oct. 17 that the group would retaliate with suicide attacks in Nairobi, noting the Kampala attacks the group staged in July 2010, killing 74 people and injuring another 70. Al Shabaab has issued such threats in the past, but these have never led to any major attack. A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) that detonated Oct. 18 in Mogadishu near a visiting Kenyan delegation that included Defense Minister Yusuf Hajji and Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula may also have been a warning to the Kenyan government. A direct, 108-kilometer-long road connects Kismayo to Afmadow. Rain has reportedly slowed the Kenyan advance so far, but there are no further natural barriers (aside from the Juba River, which has multiple bridges) to prevent an invasion of Kismayo from Afmadow. Al Shabaab's fighters in Kismayo are thus reportedly mobilizing to respond to a potential Kenyan attack on the city. Eyewitness accounts from Somalis in Kismayo have reported that the Islamist group's forces have been heading for the front at Afmadow in "technicals," or trucks modified to carry heavy machine guns. Religious-based rhetoric characterizing the Kenyan soldiers as Christian invaders is being employed in local media, a dynamic the Kenyan military spokesman's reference to Kenyan troops being ready to celebrate Christmas in Somalia will certainly feed. Al Shabaab fighters typically retreat if the defense of a certain area is considered futile, but considering the size of the force the Kenyans are reportedly employing, it is highly possible that al Shabaab would mount a strong defense of the city if it were attacked. Al Shabaab may have been weakened recently by the combination of a prolonged drought and famine, internal divisions and the loss of its former positions in Mogadishu, but it has not been defeated.