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Kenya sees military operation in Somalia as necessity

For Kenyans, the threat that Somali kidnappers pose to the tourism industry justifies the invasion. Critics, however, see a long war ahead, a risky venture of more value to the U.S. than to Kenya.

November 18, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A Somali government soldier takes position during a brief exchange of fire with Shabab militants in Mogadishu. The militants are also engaged in fighting with Kenyan troops in southern Somalia.
A Somali government soldier takes position during a brief exchange of fire… (Farah Abdi Warsameh, Associated…)

Reporting from Nairobi, Kenya — In the month since Kenya invaded southern Somalia, one government official has urged negotiations with Al Qaeda-linked militants the army is attacking there. Another ruled out talks. A spokesman said the incursion was months in the planning. The army commander said the decision took just days.

There is greater accord among officials that the country's first foreign war in its nearly 50-year history is likely to be a long slog, and among critics that Operation Linda Nchi, or Protect the Nation, is a risky venture of more value to the U.S. than to Kenya.

Somalia, the critics say, has a long history of burning those who think they can fix it.

There are obvious benefits to Kenya if it can quiet its northern neighbor. Kenya has long been troubled by sporadic attacks and a flow of weapons and trained militants from across the border. This year, kidnappers from Somalia seized four foreigners for ransom, a black eye for Kenya's vital tourist industry.

Then, there are the humanitarian issues: Half a million Somalis, regarded here as both a threat and a burden, have fled famine for the giant Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya. If the extremist Shabab militia, which regards relief organizations with suspicion, were chased out, aid could flow directly into the famine-stricken region.

Despite the dangers, many Kenyans are willing to support the war.

"This is a country where there is no law, no order, and these guys keep disturbing Kenya," said Daniel Mulum, a 30-year-old accountant. "With the military there, we fight them directly."

Paul Muite, a prominent lawyer and opposition candidate in next year's presidential election, said Kenyans were frustrated that Somali kidnappers could threaten the tourism industry. That was the immediate justification for the invasion.

"Kenyan public opinion was agreed that something had to be done," he said.

The war has created some new celebrities. The operation commander, Maj. Gen. Leonard Ngondi, has gone from leading peacekeeping missions to fighting Kenya's enemies. Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, the military spokesman, has become Kenya's overnight Twitter king with more than 6,500 followers.

Photojournalist Maxwell Agwanda, more comfortable with fashion, models and wildlife, found himself surrounded at one point by young fighters brandishing assault rifles.

"When we went there, we saw how serious it is. We saw people with bullets in their legs. There are no rubber bullets there," he said, shuddering.

The fighting has not been without casualties, mistakes and warnings about its future course.

Kenya's first dead soldier was buried quietly, largely out of public view, apparently to avoid drawing too much attention. Five others were killed in a helicopter crash in Kenya that was related to the Somalia campaign.

The aid organization Doctors without Borders reported that the Kenyan military bombed a camp for displaced Somalis, killing five and injuring dozens, including 31 children. Kenya denied attacking the camp.

Chirchir also called attention to a YouTube video of a burning boat, alleging that 18 Shabab militants were killed. It turned out that troops had shot up a boat full of Kenyan fishermen, killing eight of them.

Critics contend that the invasion might make matters worse, not better. Even if they are defeated, analysts say, Shabab fighters are likely to melt back into old clan militias and return to the kind of warfare that has torn Somalia apart in the last two decades.

And regardless of whether the invasion strengthens Somalia's transitional government, many Somalis don't trust it. Created through years of clan negotiations, the government is protected by African Union soldiers and militias who retain loyalty to warlords.

The invasion is also complicating efforts to reach 3 million people trying to survive the famine in southern Somalia. Officials fear three-quarters of a million Somalis could die in coming months if aid organizations cannot reach them.

Then, there is the fear that the Kenyan army has taken on more than it can handle.

Somalia is awash in weapons. Its militias have seen off American and United Nations forces. They defeated the U.S.-backed Ethiopian army, which sent an invasion force of about 10,000 soldiers backed by U.S. special forces in 2006, supposedly to crush Islamic militants, only to retreat three years later.

When Somali militias have a victory, they tend to make a graphic celebration of it. They dragged the bodies of U.S. airmen through the streets in the 1990s. Last month, the Shabab laid out the bodies of dozens of soldiers from Burundi, who had been deployed to protect the Somali government, in a grisly display with their crosses and Bibles.

In addition, Kenya could become a terrorism target, witness worse damage to its tourist industry or slide into violence.

The Shabab has vowed to carry out attacks in Kenya, which could cause damage to the $737-million tourism industry far greater than a few kidnappings.

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