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Somalia Remains a Problem

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This is all a bad deal:

Over the weekend, Kenyan forces entered Somalia in response to the recent kidnappings of two European tourists (one of whom has since died) and two Spanish aid workers. As I wrote when Kenya began boosting its presence on the border last week, Kenya has economic as well as security interests in preventing incursions from Somalia: the kidnappings are already taking a toll on Kenya’s economy. Mutuma Mathiu, Managing Editor of Kenya’s Daily Nation, undoubtedly speaks for many Kenyans when he headlines his column, “Kenya has no choice on this matter of al Shabaab; the war must go on.”

Kenya is reporting progress so far. But much of the international news coverage and analysis is tilting toward pessimism. The precedents of the US intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s and the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from late 2006 to early 2009 loom as examples of powers who tried – and failed – to pacify Somalia by force. The suicide bombings conducted by Somalia’s al Shabab rebel movement in Uganda in 2010 – undertaken as revenge for Uganda’s role in supplying troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) – stand as another reminder of the risks outsiders take when they get involved in Somalia. Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, warns that if the mission drags on, Kenya could become entangled in a long and fruitless intervention. Finally, AP reports that “Kenyan troops surprised U.S. officials by entering Somalia last weekend, even though the U.S. had urged Kenya to take measures to improve security along its border with Somalia following a spate of kidnappings.”

The problem here is similar to the one faced in 2007, when Ethiopia invaded with US support. That was widely seen as a US proxy war (even by its [temporary] supporters), but as in this case the “proxy” part isn’t the whole story. Somali forces in 2006 engaged in a fair number of disruptive activities along the Ethiopian border, providing one (but not the only) reason for the Ethiopian invasion. Here, Kenyan reasons for engaging in active border defense against al Shabab seem legitimate, whatever interest the US may have in the matter.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’m inclined to think that attempting to negotiate with the ICU in 2006 would have been a better idea than encouraging Ethiopia to launch an all out war; the ICU still possessed moderate elements that were evidently susceptible to suasion.  Now the problem is more twitchy, because al Shabab has become more radical.  It’s also in a more difficult military position, which can make an organization risk acceptant and disinclined to negotiate (believe it or not, the “we want to negotiate from a position of strength” preoccupies both sides of a fight).   The best to hope for, perhaps, might be a measured Kenyan offensive that indicates to al Shabab that cross border attacks need to stop, but that stops short of an attempt to “solve” the Somali political situation.

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