Twelve months ago Kenya invaded Somalia with the expressed goal of taking the city of Kismayu. This past weekend Kismayu fell but there are no celebrations, no parades.
The fall of Kismayu will go down in history as the defeat of al-Qaeda’s first organized state. Until al-Shabaab took Kismayu after the failed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2007, no terrorist organization had a fully fledged government in place.
Over the next five years, Shabaab exerted full administrative control on Somali’s largest port city, estimated at around 200,000 with many modern facilities including a functioning harbor and university. The group imposed Sharia law and imposed a strict if oppressive peace.
Kismayu is the center of pirate activity in the Arabian Gulf and with the fixed taxes Shabaab imposed on the pirates and a burgeoning trade in concrete and fish, and an increasing trade in illicit drunks and weapons, Kismayu became the quintessential Joker’s capital.
It had never happened before. Terrorists had always been in hiding or on the run. By 2009 Shabaab had extended its full authority over at least a third of southern Somali and along all of the Kenyan border. It was now a country only slightly smaller than Britain.
Kenya announced its invasion of Somalia as a response to mounting attacks inside its territory near the shared border, but more because of the growing strain on Kenyan society of the huge Dadaab refugee camp.
The camp is now the largest in the world, and while funded principally by the United Nations, it is a massive and threatening city in the Kenyan desert, larger than all but four of Kenya’s other metropolitan areas. Although there is an undeniable economic benefit to the enormous resources being passed through the country by the United Nations, the net result is probably negative.
When the invasion happened on October 18, 2011, I predicted only bad news. I was wrong. There is much bad news, but there is also some good news.
The Kenyans have suffered many fewer casualties than I expected, principally because their army moved so slowly and carefully, avoiding huge clashes. In fact with time I began to wonder if Kenya had the right formula for modern warfare, actually trumping big powers like us.
But a year ago it was not clear – as it is today – how much the western world, particularly France and the U.S., have been involved. U.S. drones, French warships and even reports of actual special services embedded with the Kenyan troops suggest a massive clandestine effort by the west to assure Kenya’s success.
We know that the Obama administration has deployed special services throughout east and central Africa so it’s likely there are Americans on the ground in Somalia helping the Kenyans. Together with our drones, we’ve probably been involved from the get go.
Such proxy warring is disturbing. It’s unsettling to me, because in theory it means Kenyans are dying to protect me, an American. It’s unsettling because we as Americans (and French, etc.) can now play with fire and not get burned.
The Kenyan mission was very slow and marginally successful day-by-day. African Union Forces which had been deployed in Mogadishu since the earth was created had been totally useless before Kenya began making inroads in the south.
Today, AUF control Mogadishu and a relative peace pervades the city for the first time in a generation. There is no doubt that Kenya’s courage in the south provided peace further north.
There is a new Somalia president, a respected university academic. Aid organizations are returning, and the news Kenya most wants to hear, that soon refugees might be repatriated, is all a collection of very positive news.
But as Jeffrey Gettleman has pointed out again and again, Kismayu freed is the worst Pandora’s Box in Africa.
The warlord society of Somali, empowered by funds and weapons scattered by America’s mousey retreat from Blackhawk Down in 1993, is rivaled only in Afghanistan. These are not people who take kindly to city council zoning rules. There is now a real concern that even the combined military of Kenya, the AUF and newly inaugurated Somali Defense Forces can hold in place what Shabaab did with nothing less than abject terror.
Over the last year terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil have increased exponentially. Tourists have been killed, kidnaped, and grenade attacks on Christian churches have taken hundreds of Kenyan lives, and even Nairobi city has experienced a half dozen terrorist attacks.
None of these were as grand or apparently as carefully planned as the Shabaab attack in Kampala in July, 2010. That attack was specific retribution by al-Shabaab against the Ugandan military, which had been the lead force in the AUF for several years. Kenya was understandably worried it would suffer the same.
It didn’t. Yet the aggregate misery, deaths, injuries and destruction of all the little attacks now exceeds by far the single grand attack in Kampala.
So there are no parades or other celebrations. A milestone, yes, but the story is far from over.