In October 2011, after a series of attacks and kidnappings by the Somali based Islamist terrorist group Al Shabaab, former President Mwai Kibaki took the war to the enemy, deploying Kenyan troops across the border to ostensibly take on and destroy the terrorist group.
More than 4 years later, under the auspices of AMISOM, Kenyan troops are still battling Al Shabaab in different parts of Somalia. Sadly, a few days ago, the terrorist group mounted a major attack targeting Kenyan troops at an African Union base in El-Adde in southern Somalia.
As the dust settles and details start to emerge on the events leading to and the circumstances surrounding the deadly attack, it is estimated that more than 50 Kenyan troops may have been killed, tens wounded and an unknown number taken hostage by the militant group.
In the wake of this massive loss, the government is still maintaining the same line it has for years of staying the course and our troops remaining in Somalia until Al Shabaab is defeated.
After the latest, far deadlier attack on Kenyan troops in Somalia, questions need to be asked about the government’s policy on Kenya’s role in Somalia. Demand by the citizens for the government to take responsibility and be accountable for the men and women it sends to harm’s way must be relentless.
Kenyans have a right and must be allowed to have a frank and candid dialogue and to ask questions of the government of the day when harm befalls our troops. It will be remiss of any sane Kenyan not to do so in the face of such a deadly attack. Was everything that should have been done done to prevent the loss of lives in such a brutal way?
Did for example Kenyan troops have aerial surveillance as well as reconnaissance capability to monitor Al Shabaab movement and pre-empt deadly raids as the one the terrorist group carried out a few days ago? Did the strategic relocation of aerial assets by the US from the region to the Middle East to focus on targeting the Islamic State terrorist group leave Kenyan troops exposed and vulnerable?
Several media channels have quoted a senior Somali National Army general suggesting that senior officers commanding the base were given advance warning of a potential Al Shabaab attack. Has this report been verified?
It is squarely the responsibility of the government to clearly lay out its case for the continued stay of our troops in Somalia. Kenyans must though interrogate the veracity of the government’s proposition that the only option we have is for Kenyan troops to remain in Somalia and continue the fight until Al Shabaab is defeated.
HISTORY LESSONS ON FOREIGN OCCUPATIONS
History lessons will do in framing and guiding the conversation on the prudence of protracted occupation of countries by foreign troops. Although there may be cases of positive outcomes, there are many more examples of monumental failures and senseless loss of lives.
Classic contemporary examples include the invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet Union troops in 1979. After nearly a decade of brutal insurgency by local Mujahedeen forces backed by the US and a number of its Western allies, the Soviet Union, humiliated, finally withdrew its last troops from the country in 1989.
The US and Allied forces would repeat the same folly, invading Afghanistan in 2001 with the aim of toppling and defeating the ultra-conservative Taliban regime, which played host to senior Al Qaeda figures as well as providing training bases for the group responsible for the September 11 attack on World Trade Centre.
Although the Taliban regime was toppled from power, the group to date still continues to pose serious and significant security challenges to the poorly equipped Afghan Army and even after decades of occupation by foreign troops, Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places on the planet and a hotbed of violent extremism.
History again reserved a harsh lesson for the US and its allies when they invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in the so called second Gulf war in 2003. What followed was one of the bloodiest insurgencies the US has ever faced in history creating perfect conditions for the emergence of violent Islamist groups like the Islamic State and its forerunners.
The experience of the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as that of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan casts doubt that it is a feasible pursuit for the Kenyan government to seek to completely defeat Al Shabaab in Somalia before our troops can be withdrawn.
Indefinite military occupation of a country by foreign troops is not a viable option. It is simply too expensive financially, never mind unsustainable loss of lives in the long term.
The latest Al Shabaab attack on Kenyan troops is a preview of what would be the norm in the event of a protracted presence of foreign troops in Somalia. Prior to the brutal murder of Kenyan troops, Uganda and Burundi had suffered equally heavy personnel losses at the hands of Al Shabaab.
My contention is that although Kenyan troops have a role to play in Somalia in the short term, there is a need to craft a medium to long term strategy on what role Kenyan troops can play in Somalia. The strategy must consider, as a central premise, a strategic scaling down and eventual withdrawal of our troops from Somalia.
Such a move will not be an act of cowardice but rational and amenable to presenting reality. Foreign occupation of any country is fraught with danger, is ultimately very costly and unsustainable in the long run. We must also bear in mind that military force alone can’t defeat violent extremism, the brand espoused by terrorist groups like Al Shabaab. Only local forces, with the support of friendly countries can take back and control their country.
Gitaa Nyasani is a political and security analyst firstname.lastname@example.org, @gitaanyasani
Article first published in the Standardmedia Ureport January 27, 2016