REPORTING FROM NAIROBI, KENYA — The commander of Kenya’s defense forces declared Saturday that his troops will remain in neighboring Somalia until the threat from the Islamist militia Shabab is eliminated and Kenyans feel safe.Given the messiness of other countries’ incursions in Somalia, the vow by defense forces chief Julius Karangi suggests that Kenya’s first military adventure since independence nearly half a century ago could be a long one.
In 1992, U.S.-led forces launched Operation Restore Hope, which led to the “Black Hawk Down” catastrophe of October 1993, in which the bodies of 18 U.S. troops were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 to defeat the Islamic Courts Union, a religious alliance that had taken power in the country. Ethiopian forces withdrew in 2009, only to see the rapid advance of Shabab, a successor to the ICU. Ethiopia claimed to have achieved its mission, but the situation in Somalia suggested otherwise.
Kenya’s decision to get involved with one of Africa’s most intractable war zones, a failed state that hasn’t had a government for two decades, was a “spur of the moment” one, Karangi said Saturday.
Speaking at a Nairobi news conference, he said the decision was made in early October. Twelve days later, troops were in Somalia, he said. “Some people mentioned that this entire operation was preplanned, [that] it had been on the table for many, many months and years, and the answer is no. We acted as a country on the spur of the moment,” he said.
Government authority to invade was given Oct. 4, three days after Somali gunmen kidnapped Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu from the resort of Lamu on Kenya’s northern coast. She died in captivity, but the date and details of her death aren’t clear. Kenyan troops entered Somalia on Oct. 16, three days after two Spanish aid workers were kidnapped by Somali gunmen.
The kidnappings, and their effect on Kenya’s $730-million tourist industry, have boosted public support for Operation Linda Nchi, which means “protect the nation.” Karangi said that for Kenyans to feel safe, Shabab would have to be severely “degraded.”
“This campaign is not time-bound. When the Kenya government and the people of this country feel that they are safe enough from the Al Shabab menace, we shall pull back. Key success factors or indicators will be in the form of a highly degraded Al Shabab capacity,” he said. Karangi said only one Kenyan soldier had died so far in the military action.
He did not say how many Kenyan soldiers are on the ground, but added it was “sufficient.” Kenya’s key aim is to take the port town of Kismayu, a deep-water port that is Shahab’s main base and its key supply point.