After a spate of cross-border kidnappings and attacks by Al-Shabaab bands, thousands of Kenyan troops drove into southern Somalia on Oct. 16. Officially, Nairobi minimized the incursion as necessary to push the al-Qaeda-linked Somali bands back from its border.
But more ambitious strategic goals emerged as Operation Linda Nchi unfolded. The Kenyan army was on its way to the capture of the Indian Ocean port of Kismayo.
With a population of 200,000, this commercial capital of the autonomous Jubalanand region of Somalia lies 328 miles southwest of Mogadishu near the mouth of the Jubba River.
Kismayo is the key to controlling most of southern Somalia.
Today, it is a strategic Al Shabaab stronghold.
By Thursday, Oct. 27, just eleven days after their initial incursion, Kenyan troops had pushed some 100 kilometers (60 miles) into southern Somalia and were cutting into Al Shabaab turf. Military sources reported that scores of women soldiers are fighting alongside men in both infantry and armored units. One bore the rank of colonel.
Washington and Paris insist they are not involved in the new Horn of Africa conflict. At the same time, American unmanned aircraft are quietly helping the Kenyan army gather intelligence and direct its artillery fire, while French warships and supply vessels operating out of Kenya's Mombasa port are ferrying supplies, arms and fresh Kenyan troops to the Somali coast.
This support is helping the small Kenyan army of 65,000 strong fight its way through the deep mud covering southern Somalia after heavy seasonal rains and floods.
Kenyan and Somali allies are fellow clan members
But even more important than the military aid rendered by the two powers is the logistical and active support local Somalis are giving the Kenyan army.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, Kenya did not launch Operation Linda Nchi on an impulse. The way was paved by a groundbreaking pact forged secretly between the Kenyan Minister of Defense, Mohamed Yusuf Haji, and the incumbent President of Jubaland, ex-Defense Minister of Somalia Mohamed Abdi Gandhi – both members of the same Ogaden Darod clan.
Their pact covered several areas:
1. The former Somali defense minister assigned his tribal forces the task of vanguard for the Kenyan operation.
2. While not up to occupying a city the size of Kismayo, these native forces are committed to waging guerrilla warfare against Al Shabaab bands in the town, picking them off and weakening them ahead of the arrival of the Kenyan army for the decisive offensive.
Al Shabaab, for its part, hoped to delay the Kenyan advance by large-scale terrorist attacks in Nairobi and other parts of the country earlier this month. But this tactic did not work.
Thursday, Oct. 27, the Somali Islamists using a rocket-propelled grenade killed four people in a vehicle carrying government officials in the Mandera district of northern Kenya.
Kenya wants Kismayo, promises Southern Somalia stability
Tuesday, the day after two grenade attacks in Nairobi, the Kenyan police had a major breakthrough: They uncovered a cache of arms including 13 grenades and several automatic weapons alongside several hundred rounds of ammunition.
On Wednesday, the Nairobi police detonated a bomb in a vehicle in one of the capital’s residential areas known as Kayole.
3. By capturing Kismayo and driving Al Shabab out, Kenya will force the Muslim militia to remove its fighters from the Somalia-Kenya border districts and indeed most of southern Somalia – or face destruction.
Kenyan Defense Minister Yusuf Haji, who is personally commanding the Kenyan expedition to Somalia, aims to shift Al Shabaab back to a line 300 kilometers from Kenya’s northeastern border.
Expelling the Islamist terrorists would transform his ally and fellow clansman, President Yusuf Haji of Jubaland, into the strongest ruler in war-torn Somalia and head of its most stable province.
4. Nairobi is pledged to invest generously in Kismayo and develop its port.
Mombasa, Lamu and Kismayo
Kenya also has a detailed plan for building a big new modern port at its own Lamu Town or Lamu Island, the country's oldest inhabited town and one of the original Swahili settlements along coastal East Africa.
Most of its inhabitants are descendants of a Chinese commercial military delegation, who were landed by a huge Chinese fleet in 1400 and decided to settle there and establish a Chinese Indian Ocean colony.
Lamu's existence was first attested to in writing by an Arab traveler, Abu al-Mahasini, who reported meeting a judge from the town while on a visit to Mecca in 1441.
If Kenya, a safari mecca and one of the continent's most stable countries, can bring all its plans to fruition, it will end up in control of the three largest East African Indian Ocean ports, Mombasa, Lamu and Kismayo. The US and France will gain the use of the three largest naval and air force facilities in the region.
The general consensus of military and economic experts is that Kenya is short of the financial and military resources for executing projects on this scale and complexity which would take years.
But President Emilia Mwai Kibaki and his defense minister have no such qualms.