It was a spate of kidnappings and terror attacks that sparked the Kenyan invasion of Somalia in 2011, and it precisely the same reason why Kenya should not for a second consider withdrawal from AMISOM now. Dubbed Operation ‘Protect the country’, Linda Nchi saw the Kenyan Defence Force make material gains against an unchecked al Shabaab terrorist presences in Southern Somalia. As a consequence, many coastal areas in Mombasa and the entire border region with Somalia became far less dangerous a place to work once the KDF removed al Shabaab from the borders and ports, effectively surrounding the organisation in the Somali hinterlands.
But the harder the KDF squeeze al Shabaab, the more likely attacks of the nature of Westgate are. Even before this week’s violence al Shabaab terrorists had infiltrated the Golis Mountains in Puntland yet again, provoking an immediate counter-terrorism fight by local forces. The logical action for Kenya would thus be to withdraw from Somalia and surrounds, but there are several good reasons why this should not be considered.
If Kenya Leaves, al Shabaab Wins
Much the same way that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists, so too must Kenya avoid legitimising al Shabaab as an organisation capable of forcing resolutions through random violence against Kenyan civilians (and in this case, many others too). A key factor in al Shabaab’s constant inability to gain traction has been a global refusal to acknowledge it as anything other than a terrorist group, to be met with force first rather than negotiation. Although apologists may argue that this in turn perpetuates al Shabaab’s violent approaches, the problem of enabling political agency to an organisation such as al Shabaab would invariably lead to many other organisations in an unstable region taking up arms to gain similar recognition.
Beyond this, there has been little to no indication that al Shabaab is capable of anything other than hard line Sharia law through violent enforcement. The history of the terrorist group is littered with attacks, kidnappings and bombings throughout East Africa, often during times of little formal military opposition. As such, for Kenya to pull out now would be to give al Shabaab the breathing space necessary to re-establish itself politically in the region.
AMISOM Needs Kenya
Just as important is the KDF’s contribution to the AMISOM cordon thrown over Southern Somalia. With the assistance of thousands of Kenyan troops, AMISOM has been able to prevent al Shabaab from controlling lucrative ports and borders towns, starving the organisation of funding and supplies. Should Kenya falter, al Shabaab will once again return to its dominance over AMISOM in the fight for Southern Somalia. Aside from the reprisals on civilians in AMISOM-controlled towns (al Shabaab have a tendency for public executions), the past 3 years of fighting and general improvement in Somalia’s future will have been for nothing.
Likewise, the KDF have a good level of expertise in its average soldier, enabling a degree of sophisticated counter-terrorism options to be employed, as witnessed in the amphibious ‘Operation Sledghammer’ occupation of Kismayo, seen as a key point in the war against al Shabaab.
Al Shabaab’s future
Ultimately Westgate has seen the Kenyan struggle against al Shabaab come to the spotlight, and will have significant repercussions for regional powers as they plan the response against its attackers. For Kenya, its partnership long-enjoyed with the USA’s AFRICOM could see a larger expansion of US-Kenyan operations against al Shabaab, and I for one would not be surprised if several al Shabaab leaders saw the sharp end of a drone strike in the comings months. The sharing of intelligence and free travel across borders will enable Kenya, if anything, a more robust support by Kenyans of its fight against al Shabaab.