The kind of war Kenya has entered, against a foreign non-state player, is cross-border counter-insurgency and it is the hardest form of warfare known to conventional armed forces, even superpower formation.
The implications of this sudden state of affairs are so far-reaching that most Kenyans have not started pondering them in earnest. The Armed Forces are not merely walking the walk of superbly choreographed and practiced parades, they are now in the crouching trot of warfare in all its unscripted, unscheduled, cruel, bloody and messy aspects.
Already, the casualty figures are cause for concern, five soldiers died on Monday when their helicopter crashed, reportedly in a non-combat zone and for non-combat reasons. Seventy-five Somalis killed on Tuesday by the Kenyan military and identified as Al Shaabab, all this within the first few hours of the hot-pursuit, cross-border Operation Linda Nchi (Defend the Country).
Even if these figures become the weekly toll, they are still too many dead on both sides. And they will get worse, much worse, on both sides, before closure is brought to the Al Shabaab terror phenomenon and its impacts on Kenya, something which could take months or, like the piracy in the Indian Ocean, also a Somali problem and phenomenon, years.
Kenya is at war, not with either the Somali Government or people but with the Al Shabaab militia, a terror group that is as adept as any other, including its role model Al Qaeda, in seemingly melting into or emerging from thin air.
The region’s biggest economy and most exemplary democracy has embarked on a military venture on the eve of its most significant General Election year and at a moment of national vulnerability, with the shilling being the world’s worst-performing currency of 2011.
Wartime is a time of jingoism, of beating both the drums of war and of patriotism so loudly that they drown out all other noises and voices, including voices of caution and of reason. There will almost certainly be objections and protests, particularly from the civil society sector and then from within the political sector, about how swiftly and easily we have drifted towards war and all its far-reaching, mostly dreadful, implications. There was not even a vote in Parliament and the Executive has dispatched the troops as easily as would have been the case under the old, disreputable Constitution.
The war on Al Shabaab will be Kenya’s first televised war, with dispatches from the front sometimes being broadcast live. What the Government needs to do from the outset is set up an official, reliable and interactive communications centre where the progress, or lack of it, of the war is reported reliably, truthfully and on as broad a need-to-know basis as possible at least once a day.
The Financial Times East Africa Correspondent, Ms. Katrina Manson, who called the incursion unprecedented and noted that analysts fear it may backfire, quoted the following chilling message from al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage, addressing a news conference in Somalia on Monday: “Your attack [on] us means your skyscrapers will be destroyed, your tourism will disappear. We shall inflict on you the same damage you inflicted on us. We say to Kenya: did you consider the consequences of the invasion? We know fighting more than you and defeated other invaders before.”
There was indeed near-unanimity that Al Shabaab should not continue to undermine Kenya violently and with impunity, but, as the crisis escalates, there will be much hand-wringing and soul-searching.
To begin with, the kind of war Kenya has entered, against a foreign non-state player, is cross-border counterinsurgency and it is the hardest form of warfare known to conventional armed forces, even superpower formations. Kenya’s four-star General Julius Karangi, an airman, becomes the country’s first Chief of the General Staff since General Joseph Ndolo soon after Independence to command Kenyan soldiers in wartime, during the State of Emergency that accompanied the Government’s war on the Shifta secessionists.
According to one-time Central Bank of Kenya Governor Duncan Ndegwa, in his memoirs Walking in Kenyatta Struggles, the Shifta insurgency became a war on December 25, Christmas Day, when Kenyatta was still Prime Minister. Kenyatta declared a State of Emergency in the NFD and the police and military moved in.
Ndegwa, who was Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet at the time, reports this was a move opposed by an expatriate Government legal adviser, a Briton, and Attorney General Charles Njonjo since the Constitution explicitly barred the authorities from declaring an emergency in one part of the country and not all others. According to firsthand eyewitness Ndegwa, this was Kenyatta’s first (and last) State of Emergency decree and first (but not last) bending of the Independence Constitution.
The Shifta war and a simultaneous mutiny in the three East African militaries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania on the night of January 24/25 1964, exactly a month after the Shifta war started, were among the first and severest tests for Kenyatta Cabinet, a superbly united and well-chosen council of ministers. The Shifta rebels wanted secession from Kenya to join a “Greater Somalia” that also had designs on the Ogaden, inside Ethiopian territory.
‘ Wooers and doers’
Decades later, towards the end of 2011, Kenyans have entered another Somali-related uneven military contest, this time across a national border and against a much more versatile and cunning foe than the Shifta, an enemy with international terrorist connections. Cross-border counter-insurgency warfare is a literal landmine and nightmare scenario that has often frustrated and ultimately humbled even superpowers. History is littered with examples of economically and democratically far superior societies militarily engaging far inferior entities, both state and non-state, and coming out much the worse for wear.
In his classic 1965 analysis of guerrilla warfare titled The War of the Flea, author Robert Taber described the vulnerability of modern democratic states to insurgent warfare in the following unforgettable terms, which now apply to Kenya too: “The modern industrial society cannot function, and its government cannot govern, except with popular participation and by popular consent…. They must make great concessions to popular notions of what is democratic and just, or be replaced by regimes that will do so…. They must use the liberal rhetoric and also pay something in the way of social compromise…if they are to retain power and keep the people to their accustomed, profit-producing tasks…They cannot openly crush the opposition that embarrasses and harasses them. They must be wooers as well as doers”.
It was also Taber, in the same book, who pithily defined the guerrilla fighter’s means and methods against the modern conventional military of all nations by noting, “The guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with.”
Compared to the completely failed state of Somalia, Kenya is indeed an industrialised democracy, waging war by the book of the Geneva Conventions against a foe, Al Shabaab, which lies even beyond the criminal lunatic fringe, an exponent and proponent of terrorism. Al Shabaab will not think twice about sending young Kenyan soldiers back home in body bags by the dozen, or of kidnapping senior officers, holding them to ransom and perhaps even executing some on video to capture sensationalist world media headlines. Kenya cannot respond in kind. The coming months and perhaps even years will be fraught with national trauma at precisely the point when the country can least ill afford to have its attentions, priorities and energies diverted by the madness and instability of cross-border warfare.
If the conflict escalates, it will almost certainly involve Al Shabaab’s extended family, Al Qaeda and other international jihadists, terror elites that have struck inside Kenya before, with unnerving ease and devastating effect. They fight dirty and they could end up targeting Kenyans and Kenyan interests not only here in the region but around the world. Kenya’s national security state is about to be put to its most severe test of the post-Independence era, its battle preparedness being put to the test of becoming battle-hardened.
The Armed Forces have been exemplary detachments for almost 50 years, underwriting the constitutional order by putting down the August 1982 attempted coup, undertaking international peacekeeping operations under UN auspices, training other African forces and offering the high point of National Day parades in impressive march-, drive- and fly-pasts to the accompaniment of martial music by brass bands. The time to test all those years of training and discipline and all that expensive equipment is now. How well can we expect the Armed Forces to acquit themselves in battle against such a shadowy foe as Al Shabaab?
Much more will be on trial than individual officers’ and men’s courage and bravery and proficiency in the heat of war. Military procurement, the quality and integrity of the weapons and communications and transportation systems at their disposal, will also be sorely tested, with life-and-death dynamics at play. Soon we will find out the truth about all those reports of dodgy procurement and even more flawed equipment.
Fighting the flea
Other forces have been in the badlands and no-man’s-land of Somalia, notably elite units of the greatest military in history, the US Armed Forces, almost 20 years ago. The US foray into Somalia in 1993 illustrated the pitfalls of the war of the flea even for the mightiest military, ending in disaster amid media images of murdered and mutilated troops being dragged in the streets. Kenya’s forces will be the first boots-on-the-ground deployment inside Somalia since the Ethiopian invasion that put paid to the Islamic Courts Councils regime and the Ugandan and other African Union peacekeepers, all of whom have sustained cruel casualties. Kenyans need to be prepared for the fact that there will be deaths and other casualties, that some of their sons and daughters, perhaps even in large numbers, will come back home in body bags, mutilated or crippled. War is that way, even when it ends in comprehensive wins and victory parades and medals.
What the long term brings only time will tell. The best result should be Kenya spearheading a restoration of sustainable peace throughout Somalia, an undertaking in which we will need all the help the international community can give. Kenya must seek that help early, particularly from Ethiopia, a nation we used to have military pacts with.
The worst-case scenarios are appalling and not to be wished on Kenyans, whose recoil from their own internal episode of madness and disorder almost four years ago signaled just how much we abhor chaos. Having taken anarchy by the horns, we have no option but to prevail.