- - Monday, February 27, 2012

KAMPALA, Uganda — After months of delay often bogged down in muddy fields, Kenyan troops are finding their footing to become a valuable asset in the fight against al-Shabab terrorists in Somalia.

About 1,500 Kenyan soldiers crossed Somalia’s eastern border in October without approval from African Union peacekeepers, who were there to support a shaky transitional government in a lawless nation gripped in turmoil for more than 20 years.

The Kenyan troops crossed the border into Somalia after accusing the al Qaeda-linked Islamist group of abducting tourists and civil servants and launching grenade attacks inside Kenya.

They arrived in the rainy season and got nowhere. They were soon roundly dismissed as inexperienced foreign invaders with no clear objective and guilty of undermining the peacekeeping agenda.

That image began to change in December when Kenyan troops in southern Somalia proved pivotal in helping Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government troops take back the town of Damasa along Kenya’s border.

On Feb. 3, two Kenyan helicopter gunships hit an al-Shabab convoy in Dalayat village in the south, killing an estimated 100 militants and leading to the takeover of Hosingo and Badade towns.

Kenyan troops last week launched airstrikes on a key al-Shabab settlement in the rebel stronghold of Bulo Haji, also in southern Somalia, killing several militants, local residents said.

The combined forces of Kenyan and African Union troops now possess 80 percent of the Gedo region. Bardheere is the only major town under rebel control. Residents who fled al-Shabab’s brutal Islamist rule are now returning.

Kenya has enlisted fighter jets from Jordan, armored trucks from Israel and attack helicopters from China. They are reportedly negotiating with Washington to obtain F-15s and other military hardware used in Iraq.

Meanwhile, although not working in coordination with Kenyan forces, Ethiopian troops in December took the strategic town of Beledweyne along the Somalia-Ethiopia border, taking some pressure off Kenyan forces to the south.

Closer intelligence collaboration with troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia has helped foil al-Shabab terrorist plans. About 12,000 soldiers from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti made up the African Union peacekeeping mission, which the United Nations approved in 2007.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council voted to increase the troops to 17,000 and authorized Kenyan troops to join the mission under African Union command.

Some feared that Kenya’s entry into the war would result in an upsurge of retaliatory attacks. Kenya shares a border with Somalia and is home to a sizable Somali expatriate community.

So far, those concerns have proved unfounded. Kenya has disrupted recruitment links that al-Shabab has inside Kenya, including in the Nairobi slum of Marengo, said Kenyan forces spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna.

Kenya also is getting key international support. Britain has helped Kenya with border security and is weighing airstrikes on al-Shabab logistical hubs and training camps.

Outside Mogadishu, Somalia, last month, a U.S. drone took out Bilal al-Barjawi, 27, an al Qaeda terrorist fighting al-Shabab.

The peacekeepers are preparing Somalia for transition to the United Nations with the aim of drafting a new constitution and holding elections this year.

The peacekeepers are also set to expand southwest from Mogadishu and keep the estimated 6,000 to 14,000 al-Shabab fighters on the run.

“The idea is to chase al-Shabab and capture the key towns as quickly as possible,” said African Union spokesman Paddy Ankuunda.

E.J. Hogendoorn, a Horn of Africa regional director for the International Crisis Group, warned that the task is bigger than forcing al-Shabab out of its strongholds.

“The big question will not be taking areas, but stabilizing them afterwards,” he said.

Many areas under Kenyan and African Union control, including Mogadishu, remain unstable and lawless. Corruption within the transitional government is rampant, with about 96 percent of foreign aid illegally pocketed in 2009 and 2010, according to an independent audit.

Col. Oguna said Kenya’s key objective is to reduce al-Shabab’s military threat to the country.

“Pacification is tedious and time-consuming. It is safe to say that we are prepared for the long haul,” he said.

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