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February 21, 2012

Kenya Refocuses Fight Against Al-Shabab

by Gabe Joselow

Abdullahi Sheikh Ahmed, an elder in Tabda, southern Somalia, is still bitter about a time, not long ago, when al-Shabab militants choked off the only supply routes to the town, a common strategy of the Islamist group to tax people in areas under their control.

"When they blocked people and vehicles and they were not bringing us anything," he said, "as a group of elders we requested how to meet the Shabab representatives in the area, we were begging them for a couple of days to allow us to bring a single donkey cart of food."

Ahmed said since Somali and Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) took control of Tabda, in the early stages of Operation Linda Nchi (Kenya's war against al-Shabab that began in October) Tabda has been able to resume trading with the nearby town of Dobley, where they can get most of the food they need.

KDF commanders say they are working to pacify "liberated" towns like Tabda before they resume a forward march on al-Shabab strongholds including Kismayo, a port city of 200,000 people on Somalia's east coast and a major transit point for guns and money.

At KDF land component headquarters in Liboi, Kenya Brigadier Johnson Ondieki, said "Our aim is not to acquire territory or land, as such. Our intention is to ensure that there's a secure environment for NGOs for international groups like the media and the rest to operate in Somalia."

Johnson also said the strategic town of Afmadow, just outside Kismayo, is "within reach" and that it can be taken quickly.

In the early weeks of the war, the military had repeatedly said capturing the two cities is crucial to cutting off al-Shabab's supply lines and crippling their financial networks.

Fragile alliances


Kenya's pacification strategy relies on allied local authorities taking the initiative to establish political control over areas liberated by Kenyan forces.

In Dobley, just across the border from Kenya, soldiers with Somali soldiers cooperate with the Ras Kamboni militia to maintain peace.

It seems to be working for now, but in Somalia, alliances can quickly change. Ras Kamboni, for instance, is headed by a former Islamist fighter Ahmed Madobe, who later sided with the government.

Madobe, who looks like a former soldier, has admitted to training al-Shabab fighters in the past. Wearing a green army jacket and sunglasses, his short beard dyed red, mingled among the Kenyan soldiers.

"We're not fighting because we have hidden agendas or interests," he said, "but to see Somali people come out of these difficulties and challenges, so that they can decide how they want to live their lives."

Some militia fighters report an internal political power struggle within Ras Kamboni.

Abdullahi Mutawakai, assistant to the local Transitional Federal Government (TFG) governor, downplays concerns that the rift will disrupt the peacekeeping effort. "There is no fighting, there is no conflict, we are all working together, we are all Somali," he said, "I hope they will solve their problems, because it's just internal issues, it's not so big a problem."

"We Send Soulz 2 Heaven"

KDF commanders say the fight against al-Shabab has changed since the start of the war. Instead of direct confrontation, they say the militants now strike in small numbers, mostly at night, firing light weapons or setting of improvised explosive devices.

One soldier who declined to give his name, stood guard outside the town hospital, comfortably holding his German-made G-3 assault rifle. Across his helmet he had scrawled the words "We Send Soulz 2 Heaven."

"Al-Shabab [militants] are trained to fight in a system like a guerilla war," he said.  "The only time we fought them directly, it was here in Dobley. But in other towns they fight in a guerilla system, not symmetrical or conventional."

Kenyan soldiers expressed mixed feelings about their involvement in the mission. One, who also declined to give his name, said that morale was low, and that the soldiers had not been paid in months, a claim that could not be independently verified.

KDF is poised to join the African Union force in Somalia (AMISOM), comprised of soldiers from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti. The force mostly provides security in the capital Mogadishu, but could see an expanded mission if Kenyan troops are incorporated.

Ethiopian soldiers have also entered into Somalia from the west, putting pressure on al-Shabab in the central Bay and Bakool regions where the militants maintain a strong presence.