Institutional weaknesses, poor command structure, underfunding and decisions driven by self-interest among the senior leadership of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) contributed greatly to the biggest attack on Kenyan armed forces since independence, military experts and Somalia analysts have told the Sunday Nation.
Inter-clan rivalries in the El Adde region where the attack occurred also played a role in aiding the Al-Shabaab, who attacked on January 15 using suicide bombers and hundreds of men, an assault that the Kenya Defence Forces is now investigating.
This comes as focus turns to the board of inquiry announced by the Chief of Defence Forces, in accordance with standard military practice, to answer critical questions on how the attack was carried out and what lessons can be learnt even as queries linger on the number of deaths and injuries.
“The board will answer whether there was any negligence. Was the command structure working? Were there enough weapons and equipment,” said the source.
The stance that compensation will only be paid after the board of inquiry report is compiled will raise anxiety among parents of the dozens of troops killed or missing.
The African Union Mission to Somalia, formed in 2007, is the AU’s biggest combat troop deployment on the continent but its capacity has now come under focus after it failed to learn from repeated attacks against Burundian, Ethiopian and Ugandan forces — using a similar method — before the attack on KDF troops whose death toll is still unknown.
The terrorists have been striking soon after a new set of troops arrive in the battlefield and, in all cases, at about dawn.
The use of Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices and suicide bombers followed by a wave of attackers is also a common feature.
Multiple sources interviewed by the Sunday Nation say that Amisom has failed in its broad strategy, leaving member states to continue having to deal with massive attacks that can be avoided.
“Amisom has been treating soldiers as if they are on a peacekeeping mission instead of a combat mission,” said a government analyst who did not wish to be named due to sensitivity of the matter. “They have let down the contributing countries heavily.”
A SHOT ON THE FOOT
Kenyan soldiers entered Somalia to rescue its soldiers who were trapped after the attack after dilly-dallying by the Mogadishu-based Amisom headquarters.
KDF Chief Gen Samson Mwathethe alluded to the situation on Thursday when he said: “Amisom did not have the necessary capacity and capability to assist our troops in El Adde. We were, therefore, compelled to act and therefore mobilise our own resources to respond to the situation.”
Incidentally, Kenya’s Lt- Gen Jonathan Rono was the Amisom commander until last month when his tour of duty ended.
When Kenya made an incursion into Somalia in 2011, it bore all its responsibilities from managing supplies and troop support and taking care of both land, air and sea capabilities.
But when it joined Amisom in February 2012, it handed over command and control of its troops in Somalia to the African Union-led team.
The countries which contribute troops are: Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, Burundi and Ethiopia. Sierra Leone was part of the mission but has since pulled out.
According to Gen Mwathethe, the attackers employed massive force to access the camp.
Three vehicles were driven into the KDF and Somalia National Army camps, and were followed by several suicide attackers.
He said the explosions can only be compared to three bombs of the magnitude of August 7 terrorist attack on the US embassy in 1998, perhaps preparing the country for the high number of casualties.
Experts said the latest Shabaab attack undermined claims by the US, the UN and regional powers that substantial progress has been made in subduing the militia.
The losses of terrain sustained in 2011 and 2012 by the Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents did not weaken Al-Shabaab “to the extent many had assessed,” Ms Katherine Zimmerman, a Somalia-focused analyst for the Critical Threats project sponsored by a Washington think-tank, told the Sunday Nation.
“The series of deadly raids on African Union bases in recent months shows that Al-Shabaab has successfully adapted to the new military circumstances,” Ms Zimmerman said.
A similar perspective is put forth by J Peter Pham, director of the Africa programme at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. He also points to the group’s resilience and its use of a variety of tactics — “from conventional battle, to roadside bombings and everything in between.”
It has now emerged that some of these successes are a result of a series of blunders the Amisom top command has been making that led to killing of Burundi, Uganda and Kenya forces in a similar pattern.
One pattern that emerged is that the massively staged attacks by the terrorist group occur within a few weeks of new soldiers reporting for duty.
According to military experts, Amisom does not allow sequence replacement of troops but demands en-masse handover.
This means troops are replaced by a new set who have to start from scratch.
Even worse, military intelligence officers are among those who have been moved out in these troop rotations.
According to military experts the Sunday Nation spoke to, this should only happen in peacekeeping missions but not in combat ones like Somalia.
“Sequence replacements where few platoons are left behind to help incoming soldiers understand the situation on the ground is what should be done. Instead, we have soldiers leaving en masse, a weakness Al-Shabaab has taken advantage of for too long,” said the source.
Captain (rtd) Collins Wanderi says that the rotation methods being employed by Amisom were detrimental to overall strategy.
“It is a tactical blunder for Amisom planners to allow the rotation of personnel in detachments occupying areas captured from Al-Shabaab to be done all at once. Rotation should be done in a phased sequence to allow the new forces time to acclimatise and get reoriented to a hostile combat territory,” he said.
In June 2015, more than 70 soldiers from Burundi in Lego area, 100 kilometres South of Mogadishu, were killed just weeks after they had replaced their colleagues.
In September 2015, at least 50 soldiers from Uganda were killed by the terrorist group in Janale District, 80 km southwest of Mogadishu in the Lower Shabelle region.
A convoy of Ethiopian soldiers was also ambushed and dozens killed last year during a troop rotation although the Ethiopians did not release final casualty figures.
Another weakness has been the movement of companies from one area to another, which is done in the same fashion, exposing the soldiers.
The source added that while soldiers from all contributing countries moved from one region to another, the same is not applied to the Somalia National Army.
“This has contributed to leaking of intelligence since there are fears some (Somali National Army) soldiers are sympathetic to Al-Shabaab,” said the source.
Most notably, Amisom and the Somali army do not possess air power apart from those employed on a limited basis by the KDF.
The absence of aerial coverage in most of the country makes it difficult for Amisom to secure supply lines to its forward-operating bases, including the installations at El Adde.
Uganda has dealt with this problem by paying for commercial surveillance technology to replace the old-fashioned sentry watch approach.
Mr Nicholas Kay, the outgoing UN special envoy to Somalia, said in 2014 that Amisom desperately needed helicopters in order to consolidate gains made on the ground.
“It is deeply disturbing to me that no AU state has come forward to supply helicopters to the AU mission,” Mr Kay said.
LOOPHOLES IN AMISOM
The US has compensated to some degree for the lack of Amisom airpower by attacking Al-Shabaab with missiles fired from drones.
But the US recently shut down the drone base in Ethiopia that had sent the unpiloted aircraft on missions over Somalia.
The Americans have also reduced operations over Somalia, believing the Shabaab had been weakened considerably.
Alarm has also been raised by Al-Shabaab having anti-aircraft weapons, something Gen Mwathethe said had slowed down Kenya’s initial attempts to bring in reinforcements into the besieged camp.
It, therefore, took KDF ground troops from El Wak, Mandera and Wajir 10 hours to reach the base.
The questions on Amisom operations have become even more pointed given that it took Nairobi to send a rescue team to El Adde instead of Amisom headquarters in Mogadishu.
El Adde town is situated in a place inhabited by clans hostile to KDF’s involvement in Somalia.
“The clan issue manifests itself even in such situations. The locals deliberately withheld information because they believe Kenyans favour a particular clan,” our military source said.
The January 15 attack on the El Adde base was the worst single day of losses for Kenyan troops since independence, highlighting the continued menace of the terrorist group.
Despite the killing of several Al-Shabaab leaders and the battlefield reverses the group has suffered, Al-Shabaab’s “hardline core has become even more radicalised,” Prof Pham said.
The militants’ ambitions have actually grown even as the territory they control has shrunk, he added, citing “expedited recruitment and activities beyond Somalia in northeast Kenya”.
“So much for the wishful thinking of the leaders — in Africa, in Europe and in North America — who prematurely celebrated the ‘defeat’ of Al-Shabaab and shamelessly took credit for it,” Prof Pham wrote in an email to the Sunday Nation.
The El Adde attack also showed, in the view of many commentators outside East Africa, that the African Union military mission as currently constituted is incapable of bringing security to southern and central parts of the country.
“Amisom and the Somalia National Army do not have enough forces to clear and hold southern and central Somalia, which leaves the bases open to attack,” Ms Zimmerman said.
The 22,000-strong AU force also lacks the firepower to counter Shabaab’s wide range of tactics, according to sources at the UN.
The difficulty of securing areas from which Shabaab has been removed is compounded by the Somalia government’s failure to establish a political presence and deliver services in many of the towns it nominally controls outside Mogadishu, Prof Pham observed.
He added: “The sacrifices of Amisom personnel will be in vain if the feckless Somali regime does not fill the geographical and political space that the peacekeepers opened for them.”