Military chief Gen. Julius Karangi, left, and Kenyan Defense Minister… (Khalil Senosi, AP )
Reporting from Nairobi, Kenya — The commander of Kenya's defense forces declared Saturday that his troops would remain in neighboring Somalia until the threat from the militant Islamist militia Shabab is eliminated and Kenyans feel safe.
Given the messiness of other countries' incursions in Somalia, the vow by defense forces chief Gen. Julius Karangi suggests that Kenya's first military adventure since independence nearly half a century ago could be a long one.
In 1992, U.S.-led forces launched Operation Restore Hope, which led to the "Black Hawk Down" catastrophe of October 1993, in which 18 U.S. troops were killed and the bodies of some of them dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 to defeat the Islamic Courts Union, a religious alliance that had taken power in the country. Ethiopian forces withdrew in 2009, only to see the rapid advance of Shabab, a successor to the ICU. Ethiopia claimed to have achieved its mission, but the situation in Somalia suggested otherwise.
Kenya's decision to get involved with one of Africa's most intractable war zones, a failed state that hasn't had a government for two decades, was a "spur of the moment" one, Karangi said Saturday.
Speaking at a news conference in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, he said the decision was made in early October. Twelve days later, troops were in Somalia, he said.
"Some people mentioned that this entire operation was preplanned, [that] it had been on the table for many, many months and years, and the answer is no. We acted as a country on the spur of the moment," he said.
Government authority to invade was given Oct. 4, three days after Somali gunmen kidnapped Frenchwoman Marie Dedieu from the Lamu resort archipelago on Kenya's northern coast. She died in captivity, but the date and details of her death aren't clear. Kenyan troops entered Somalia on Oct. 16, three days after two Spanish aid workers were kidnapped from a refugee camp in Kenya by Somali gunmen.
The kidnappings, and their repercussions for Kenya's $730-million tourist industry, have boosted public support for Operation Linda Nchi, which means "protect the nation."
Karangi said that for Kenyans to feel safe, the Shabab would have to be severely "degraded."
"This campaign is not time bound. When the Kenya government and the people of this country feel that they are safe enough from the Al Shabab menace, we shall pull back. Key success factors or indicators will be in the form of a highly degraded Al Shabab capacity," he said.
Karangi said one Kenyan soldier had died in the military action. He did not say how many Kenyan soldiers are involved in the mission, but said the number is "sufficient."
Kenya's key aim is to take the town of Kismayu, a deep-water port that is the Shahab's main base and its key supply point.