A destabilized Kenya would deprive the United States of one of its staunchest allies in Africa, because Nairobi since September 11 has provided military bases, communications networks and intelligence-sharing to prevent al Qaeda from making inroads on the continent.
“For the eastern portion of Africa, Kenya is critical,” said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, a former deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations on the Horn of Africa.
“They are strategically located in the area bordering Somalia,” he said. “They were critical for us in Somalia in the early 1990s. Without them, we could not have operated. They allowed us to use their bases while we were conducting operations in and out of Somalia, and they still allow us to use those bases today.”
A failed state in Kenya, as exists in Somalia, would erase “one of the top friendly militaries to the United States in Africa,” the retired three-star general said.
The prospect of a destabilized Kenya arose in recent weeks in the aftermath of a contested Dec. 27 election that kept President Mwai Kibaki in power. International observers reported ballot-counting irregularities. Street violence broke out in the capital of Nairobi, killing more than 300.
Alarmed, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dispatched her top African diplomat to Kenya to urge reconciliation between the opposing parties. U.S. envoy Jendayi E. Frazer met Saturday with Mr. Kibaki, who announced a power-sharing proposal in an effort to end the crisis.
“What we have here is one of the most promising countries in Africa on the brink,” said Michelle Gavin, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Kenya is not peripheral to the struggle against terrorism,” she said. “Kenya has been a reliable partner.”
Ms. Gavin fears a destabilized Kenya would be “extending the failed state space already occupied by Somalia that has appeal for terrorists.”
The Bush administration considers the Horn of Africa one of the critical battlegrounds in preventing al Qaeda from extending its hubs of operation beyond the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
One of the Pentagon’s first post-September 11 moves was to set up the 1,800-troop Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa in the small nation of Djibouti on Somalia’s northern border. It trains area military and police forces in counterterrorism techniques. In one instance last January, it launched an AC-130 gunship attack on suspected al Qaeda terrorists in Somalia.
Immediately after September 11, the State Department dispatched its then-top African diplomat, Walter Kansteiner, to Kenya and other East African nations. His mission: poll leaders on the al Qaeda threat and on their needs to fight terrorism.
Nairobi had already suffered one of al Qaeda’s most daring and deadly attacks. The August 1998 car bombing of the U.S. Embassy there killed 212 persons and injured more than 4,000, most of them Africans. The attack underlined al Qaeda’s desire to topple governments in North and East Africa, and establish strict Islamist rule.
Three years later, Mr. Kansteiner heard Kenyan officials say their chief fear was not necessarily disease or poverty, but a growing Islamist movement that could wreck the country. U.S. economic and military aid soon started flowing in.
“Kenya had already been looked on as one of the key, large, stable nations of Africa,” said Mr. Kansteiner, now an adviser at the Scowcroft Group in Washington. “From independence [in 1963], through the Cold War, through post-9/11, Kenya has always been a very good ally. Kenya has been a regional anchor of stability. It has provided infrastructure, everything from communications, to transportation, to medical facilities.”
President Bush in 2003 announced a $100 million aid program — the East African Counterterrorism Initiative — for Kenya, as well as Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tanzania. U.S. military and civilian officials began arriving in Kenya to teach basic operations to counter al Qaeda, such as how to watch over the country’s long Indian Ocean coastline and how to find and disarm truck bombs. Kenya had no official “watch list” to weed out terrorism suspects traveling through the country’s seaports and airports. Now it does.
In return, Kenya has helped Washington by sharing intelligence and military bases, and by providing troops for various peacekeeping missions.
“In that region, they are a very competent army,” Lt. Gen. DeLong said.
Kenya has stood as a relatively vibrant democracy and free-market economy on a continent plagued by despots, disease and violence. Mr. Kansteiner said Nairobi does more than help the U.S. militarily. It promotes democracy in surrounding nations and sponsors talks aimed at reconciliation among various warring factions in Somalia.
“They have been very attuned to private-sector growth,” he said. “They have done a good job of trying to reach out to the region and not only make Kenya economically strong, but also to integrate the region’s economies and private sectors.”
Mr. Kansteiner, while troubled by events in Kenya, does not expect it to deteriorate into a failed state.
“I think what we are looking at is some turbulent days until a new structure is put in place,” he said. “That new structure could be new elections. It could be a proper recount.”