The success of the Kenya Defence Forces in the operation against Al-Shabaab militants in southern Somalia has considerably raised the profile of a military force often made the region’s whipping boy.
“The perception of the Kenyan military at home and in the continent has changed forever with far-reaching political and security ramifications,” said security analyst Captain (rtd) Simiyu Werunga.
When KDF began Operation Linda Nchi on Friday, October 14, last year, critics at home and abroad said it would be a march of folly that would end in crushing defeat.
And so it was with great trepidation that the KDF ventured into Somalia’s southern lands on their maiden external military engagement whose outcome could prove to be the turning point in efforts to restore order in the country.
Nine months down the line, the “career soldiers”, as Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni described the Kenyan military in leaked private conversations with US officials, “have proved themselves to be an accomplished, professional, fluid, fighting machine,” said Captain Werunga.
The military has scored surprising successes in the operation and is currently on the outskirts of the southern port town of Kismayu, al-Shabaab’s last strategic stronghold, planning a final push to dislodge the militants.
In the coming days, military analysts and historians will be reflecting on how a small unit of a military without any prior combat experience has succeeded where much more experienced predecessors have failed.
Military officials would not go into the details of the secrets of their success, but good intelligence gathering has played a great role, Colonel Cyrus Oguna, KDF’s spokesman, told the Sunday Nation.
“It might have frustrated many people who wanted to see our forces achieve quick successes, but our approach enabled us to minimise tactical errors that have proved costly to other armies,” said Colonel Oguna.
What he did not mention is the fact that Operation Linda Nchi was not a knee-jerk reaction to border incursions by al-Shabaab as originally thought, but a well thought-out strategy that was years in the making.
As far back as 2007, Kenya started lobbying, unsuccessfully, for its Jubaland Initiative — a plan to create a friendly buffer zone in southern Somalia that would prevent the Islamists from crossing into Kenya.
As for its successes in the field, Captain Werunga puts it down to KDF’s superior training. “Take it from me ... the Kenyan military is one of the best trained in Africa.”
He contends that the lack of previous military engagement speaks little of Kenya’s military capabilities. “Our military trains with some of the best in the world, and it follows naturally that it has superior technical abilities.”
Stalled for months
After recording quick victories in the initial stages of the war, Operation Linda Nchi stalled for nearly four months, and it was assumed things had gone wrong. Even the local press ceased coverage.
In retrospect, Captain Werunga says this “tactical pause” — which was widely interpreted as a sign of weakness and lack of self-confidence — proved instrumental in Kenya’s progress.
“The tactical pause gave KDF time to analyse if they were doing the right thing and to learn from the experiences of others.”
Despite their differences, Somalis are known to unite to fight a common enemy, and it was feared that Operation Linda Nchi would provide al-Shabaab, which was fast disintegrating, a rallying point.
KDF has adopted a simple yet effective strategy: conquer the enemy, pacify the conquered regions and win the hearts of residents; it has suffered minimal casualties--15 soldiers lost of the 4,500 deployed.
While saying that “Kenya made a bold move and took a huge risk” by deciding to take the war to al-Shaabab, International Crisis Group’s Abdirashid Hashi said it was “way too early” to assess Kenya’s achievements.
Nonetheless, KDF’s achievements have been received with a lot of pride at home.
This week, KDF formally rehatted into Amisom, and with that, Kenyans may never know how their military would have performed by itself at the penultimate battle for Kismayu. Its fate is now Amisom’s fate.