Kenya must not miscalculate war

Sam Makinda
Sam Makinda 

Most wars have resulted from miscalculations, with the party initiating the hostilities assuming that the other side will not respond or might be so weak that it will be defeated easily.

So, did the Somali terrorist group, al Shabaab, miscalculate by assuming that Kenya would not respond to its provocations?

Kenya’s recent decision to respond was necessary and appears to have been prompted by the kidnappings of tourists and foreign aid workers in Lamu and Daadab, respectively. But, might Kenya’s massive response be a miscalculation that could end up recruiting more supporters for al Shabaab?

If, as some commentators have claimed, Kenya has taken a self-defence action in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, it has to inform the UN.

Article 51 says that such measures have to be immediately reported to the Security Council and “shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council ... to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Whether the action was taken under Article 51 or not, it is crucial that the Kenyan government defines clearly its primary goal and the strategy for attaining it.

The best goal in war should be to protect people, attain peace, enhance the rule of law, and preserve national institutions and values.

If the Kenya government’s main goal is to deter al Shabaab from threatening citizens and tourists, it will design a strategy and tactics that are consistent with it.

However, if the government’s goal is to defeat the group and deny it any territorial base in Somalia, its commitments must be long-term, and its strategies, tactics and resources have to reflect a long-haul involvement in Somalia’s civil war.

This would require the government to explain what a victory over al Shabaab would mean.

Without clear plans on how long Kenya’s troops will remain in Somalia, the recent rhetoric from politicians and senior civil servants that Kenya plans to go the whole way to Kismayu and deny al Shabaab any territorial base in Somalia smacks of miscalculations.

Any sustainable strategy against al-Shabaab ought to take into consideration the fact that this organisation is not popular in Somalia, but if the Kenyan military antagonises innocent Somalis in the process of chasing al-Shabaab, it might inadvertently recruit more supporters for the terrorist group.

Al Shabaab overwhelmingly relies on the Somali diaspora and other foreign Islamists. According to several sources, including a recent report of the UN Security Council Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, most of al-Shabaab’s diaspora recruits come from Kenya and Yemen.

Given this situation, claims that Kenya would be secure if its armed forces chased al Shabaab to Kismayu appear not to be based on good knowledge of how this terrorist group operates. Al-Shabaab is inside Kenya and inside Nairobi. It has a reliable network of recruiters in Eastleigh.

This does not suggest that every Somali person in Kenya should be held in suspicion. Whatever Kenya’s war strategy, it needs to use military force in such a way that it does not turn many good Somalis into enemies of Kenya.

Prof Makinda teaches at the University of Perth, Australia.