The decision to send its armed forces across the border with Somalia cannot have been taken lightly by the Kenyan government, and yet it is the type of action that smacks of a certain kind of desperation...that which comes from feeling the need to do something, anything, but not having a very clear idea of what that something should be, or what it should lead to.
You can understand the government’s desire to act in self-defence (though to what extent it continues to be self-defence once they’re 120 km into Somalia—as they are today—is an open question). The recent abductions in the northern provinces and particularly along the coast (Lamu is Kenya’s answer to Zanzibar) threaten not only Kenya’s tourism industry, but also its ability to play host to the enormous number of aid agencies that base themselves out of Nairobi, and the staff of which are scattered across the country. The situation is exacerbated by the famine conditions that characterise parts of northern Kenya as well as much larger swathes of Somalia, and which are pushing people in their hundreds of thousands across the Kenyan border into refugee camps.
In other circumstances, armed conflict in the vicinity of powerless populations could have horrifically-bloody consequences, but I suspect that the elusive nature of the Kenyan army’s opponents (maybe al Shabaab, maybe one of many other groups operating on the frontier that has plagued governments in Kenya since before 1900) will prevent the worst-case scenario from occurring.
But at their press conference, Yusuf Haji, George Saitoti and their underlings looked by turns nervous and eager at the prospect of venturing into Somalia. Even in the summer of 2010 I remember Kenyans I talked to and newspapers I read berating the government for its inaction in dealing with al Shabaab, so whether the move is wise or not, perhaps the ministers are simply relieved to have cast the die.
Kenya’s dicey decision comes at the same time that Obama has ordered some one-hundred special forces into action to assist in the apprehension of much-sought war criminals from the Great Lakes region in central Africa. Joseph Kony, head of the LRA, indicted by the ICC, seems to be a primary target. [Michele Bachmann had her “Africa-is-a-Country-Moment” in the Republican Party Presidential Primary debate earlier this week, bemoaning that, having undertaken military action in Libya, Obama has now authorised special forces to take part in another conflict...this time in Africa!]
This is more direct intervention in the heart of the continent than we’ve seen in some time. In recent years, the U.S. military has pounded Somalia and assisted Ethiopia in its failed attempt to restore something like order to the country (though calling Somalia a country when it’s ‘official’ government is incapable of providing any services to its people, and doesn’t even venture into most of the territory, is a stretch). I have mixed feelings about the foray into the Great Lakes. John McCain is correct to say that we could get dragged into something we’re not equipped to deal with and might not understand fully. And the mere presence of the U.S. military could act as a dangerous toxin in many parts of the world. Not as decisively in this part of Africa as in other parts of the world, but we’ve shown time and again our ability to make strange bed-fellows of our enemies, and we should always be cautious. It’s also not very clear from the reporting where these soldiers will be operating and what their relationship to the militaries of the countries in question will be.
At the same time, this ought to be a pretty carefully-defined action, and the world should be prepared to take some kind of action in moments of genuine humanitarian crisis (and perhaps some of that action should be military). It is also in support of an ICC warrant, and these things aren’t going to enforce themselves. This is the kind of action which, if we weren’t embroiled in other kinds of conflicts around the world, should be able to achieve some real good.
I’m hoping that one of the nicest, most easygoing countries I’ve ever visited isn’t allowing itself to be dragged deeper into the so-called “War on Terror”, the declaration and un-critical prosecution of which has brought no end of pain and disaster to all parties concerned. I’m hoping that these two military actions do not form part of a larger trend that links problems that should be solved as locally and democratically as possible, into the militarised maelstrom that has done so much harm to our own country.