The Times of London
Crouched with their machineguns and mortar tubes in shallow trenches that snake across the desiccated ground, dozens of Kenyan soldiers blink the sweat from their eyes and peer over the parapet of their defensive line. This is the first time the country has gone to war — and things have not gone entirely to plan.
The wind whips coarse sand into their faces, the heat is relentless, and only stubby thorn bushes and gnarled trees break the monotony of the featureless Somali landscape.
“This is a terrible place, a dangerous place,” muttered one trooper who has been posted here for months.
Close behind the line is the military base at Tabda, which houses the armoured personnel carriers, Humvees, Land Rovers, tanks, artillery and hundreds of soldiers spearheading Kenya’s assault on al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-aligned militant group that controls much of Somalia.
In mid-October the Government in Nairobi sent more than 2,000 troops north into Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabaab, which it blamed for a string of kidnappings that have damaged Kenya’s vital tourist industry.
The first Kenyan soldiers established bases at Tabda, 50 miles (80km) inside Somalia, and at Billis Qoqaani, 30 miles down a dirt road running roughly eastwards towards the sea. Within days other Kenyan incursions followed through El Wak in the north and Ras Kamboni in the south.
Politicians in Nairobi said that al-Shabaab would be quickly defeated and that Kismayo, an Indian Ocean port and Islamist stronghold, would soon fall. Neither has happened and more than four months after the invasion began Kenyan troops have scarcely moved, while the security they have brought remains tenuous.
“When the Kenyans first came there was a little peace, but now war is here again. Every night there is shooting,” said Ibrahim Mohamud Mohammed, 38, a village elder sitting under a tree in Tabda.
Soldiers said that al-Shabaab militants fired rockets or mortars at their positions every few days. This week military commanders called off a planned visit for journalists to Billis Qoqaani, citing security issues.
The Kenyans call Tabda a town, but it is little more than a village of stick houses surrounded by stick fences. There are few tin roofs, and even fewer brick walls. Bundles of belongings wrapped in blankets and lashed together rest in the upper branches of acacia trees; each forlorn package is a family home wrapped up and left behind by fleeing locals who do not feel it is safe to return.
But al-Shabaab is certainly weakened and its fighters rarely venture out in the day. They have been pummelled by airstrikes, diminishing both their numbers and eroding their mystique. “If we saw just ten Shabaab we used to be afraid: they were big fighters, they were strong. But not now,” said Abdullahi Sheikh Mohammed, a heavy-set, 70-year-old local man in a cotton sarong and shirt.
Previous foreign interventions in Somalia, including the American-led UN mission in the early 1990s and Ethiopia’s bloody invasion in 2006, have foundered. The latter gave rise to al-Shabaab, which emerged as a guerrilla force in the wake of the rapid-fire Ethiopian advance, which was supported by US missile strikes and special forces.
Kenyan commanders say they have learnt from that experience and are advancing slowly, eager not to leave behind a vacuum of neglect and disappointment that al-Shabaab can fill.
“Forward advance is not as critical as pacification of liberated areas. Our aim is not to acquire land but to secure areas,” said Brigadier Johnson Ondieki, commander of Kenya’s ground forces, speaking at Liboi military base in Kenya, a 20-minute helicopter flight from Tabda.
The Kenyan mission looked set to secure further international backing last night as the UN Security Council was expected to vote to increase the African Union peacekeeping mission from 12,000 to 17,700, incorporating the Kenyan troops into its ranks.
Brigadier Ondieki said that part of the mission is still to capture Kismayo, an economically significant port town controlled by al-Shabaab. The militants have established training camps led by foreign fighters in the surrounding forests and mangrove swamps.
Kismayo, however, is hundreds of miles away and to get there the Kenyan army must pass through Afmadow, an al-Shabaab stronghold that it has been promising to take since October.
In the first months of the invasion heavy rain bogged down the advance; now it is the lack of effective local government and basic services that the Kenyans blame for the delays.
The Kenyan commander in charge at Tabda, Lieutenant-Colonel Jeff Nyaga, called on international relief organisations to come to the “liberated areas” to provide food, clean water and healthcare, all of which are in short supply after more than two decades of conflict. He said that his troops were doing what they could to help in the meantime.
In this part of southern Somalia Lieutenant-Colonal Nyaga is not the only man in charge. His Somali counterpart is Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, a powerful local warlord.
Bearded, wearing sunglasses and carrying a black lacquer cane, Sheikh Ahmed is commander of the Ras Kamboni militia. He was a former founding member of al-Shabaab but fell out with other leaders and has fought them ever since.
“We are fighting to bring peace to the Somali people,” he said without a trace of irony. “We are not fighting just because we can, but because Somali people are tired of the fighting.”
But amid Somalia’s overlapping clan and militia fiefdoms his are not the only local forces on the ground. In nearby Dhobley, a bullet-riddled border town, Ras Kamboni gunmen in green fatigues are eyed warily by others wearing camouflage uniforms with Somali flags stitched to their sleeves.
These are the Azania militia, whose leader is an urbane ex-minister nicknamed Professor Gandhi who spends most of his time in Nairobi rather than Somalia. Both militias are allied with the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, but disagreements between the two groups have erupted into gunfights many times in recent months.
“We are being suppressed by Madobe’s soldiers, they take all the financial benefits, all the power,” said one Azania officer who did not want to be named.
He complained that Ras Kamboni gets arms, ammunition and a stipend from Kenya while the Azania, he said, gets nothing. “They are supporting the other team instead of us,” he said.