Sunday, December 30, 2012 | By JAMES VERINI | Incredibly, this small port city, a study in ruin in a country that is a parable of ruin, boasts two airports.
There is the new airport, as it is known, laughably to all who touch down there, which lies 10 miles inland and consists of a couple of mostly tarmacked runways and the carcass of a terminal. Kismayu International Airport, in blue block letters, is just barely visible above the building’s sun-bleached cornice.
Stencil-painted on the wall below that, and more legible, is the flag of the Islamist insurgent movement that until recently controlled Kismayu, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, or al-Shabaab – a black rectangle over white classical Somali script that reads “There Is No God But God.”
A half-hour drive away, hidden among the sand dunes just outside Kismayu, is the long-dormant “old” airport. It offers one dirt runway and, in the place of a terminal, a half-century-old army personnel carrier, rusted to the colour of primaeval toast, left over from the days when Kismayu was part of Italian Somaliland.
What it lacks in infrastructure the old airport makes up for in exclusive coastal access. The beach nearby was once popular with European sunbathers but, after two decades of civil war, it’s so deserted one could walk along the Indian Ocean for days without encountering another person.
Both airports are now controlled by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), which swept into Kismayu in early October with three mechanised battalions, backed up by soldiers from the Somali National Army and a local militia called Ras Kamboni; they are the poles in the southern axis of Sector 2, as the KDF calls its new domain in Somalia, which spans the country’s Lower Juba and Gedo provinces.
The southern axis is one of the more cinematic war zones Africa has to offer at the moment; aside from the airports, it includes an encampment overlooking the ocean and the Kismayu port.
Operation Linda Nchi is the first combat deployment ever undertaken by the KDF outside Kenya; until now it had been confined to supporting United Nations peacekeeping missions.
The original aim of Linda Nchi was to keep the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab out of Kenya. But the KDF has now been in Somalia for over a year. It has 2,500 troops here and plans to deploy 2,000 more by next year.
According to commanders, the new mission is to “mop up” what is left of al-Shabaab – that is, to end the Islamist insurgency for good.
The KDF soldiers have made a convincing show of going to war. At headquarters, at the new airport, they’ve dug hundreds of bunkers into the red earth and undergrowth and have set up tarp-roofed tents and makeshift showers.
Artillery guns and tanks sit among them in a manner that suggests imminent battle; but the troops here haven’t seen action in months. Lots of green plastic sandbags are everywhere, as well as trucks and Armoured Personnel Carriers with AU, for African Union, printed on their doors. A surveillance drone sits in the hangar.
Nearby is the officers’ lounge, a thatched hut outfitted with thermoses of lemon tea and a television with satellite-dish service.
In early December, Col Adan Hassan, commander of the 3rd Battalion, who oversees the airport, greeted me and three other reporters there. A tall, stoop-shouldered man, Hassan wore well-pressed fatigues and wire-rim glasses.
By way of introduction, he told us that the area around us was still alive with al-Shabaab holdouts.
“They usually start firing in the evening. When they fire, don’t move; just look there,” he said, pointing vaguely toward the desert. He looked at the female reporters. “For the ladies, you can sleep in the armoured personnel carriers if you want.”
At the far end of the hut a bedsheet was draped on the wall. A projector sat before it. A soldier at a laptop, his helmet strapped on tightly, a semi-automatic rifle leaning against his chair, brought up a PowerPoint presentation. A series of slides outlined the obstacles facing Kenya in Somalia.
Col Hassan read them off. Commenting on a slide titled “Demography,” he pointed out that, in Somalia, “Loyalty revolves around clan” and “Clan is unifying and divisive factor.” Under “Challenges in Local Areas,” he listed “non-existent government structures” and “vastness of sector.”
I asked the colonel how many al-Shabaab fighters Kenya had killed or captured on its march to Kismayu.
“I don’t have the number at my fingertips, but I assure you we degraded them,” he said. “When we entered this town, it was deserted. Many people had fled. But now, you wouldn’t believe it. They are welcoming us. It’s because of the confidence we’ve given them, the security we’ve given them.”
All the officers in the hut, I noticed, including Col Hassan, wore new white-and-green AU armbands with gold trim. They were clearly fresh out of the box, meant to emphasise to us that the Kenyan troops are part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).
I asked Col Hassan how Kenya’s and Amisom’s objectives coincide, or don’t. They are one and the same, he assured me. “We’re not an occupational force,” he said. “If the Somali people are secure, we’re secure.”
We’ll finish them
Kenya’s particular security interests kept creeping back into his answers, however. When another reporter asked how a spate of recent bombings in Kenya, believed to be al-Shabaab-related, influenced the operation, Col Hassan made clear that “what is happening in Kenya has nothing to do with what we’re doing here.”
But then, he added: “We’ll finish them here in Somalia; then we’ll look for them in Kenya.”
Asked about Kismayu, he said it “was not an objective of the KDF. It was an Amisom objective.”
This both is and isn’t true. Since Amisom decided to assemble a multinational force to go after al-Shabaab in 2010, taking Kismayu has been viewed as the endgame, at least of the military phase of the mission.
The city was al-Shabaab’s base and the port its economic engine, providing an estimated $35 million to $50 million a year to the group.
And as the interests of the United States and European Union, Somalia’s largest bilateral and multilateral donors, respectively, have shifted in the last few years from targeting high-value al-Qaeda in East Africa figures to degrading al-Shabaab and shoring up Somalia, Kismayu began to be viewed as a priority by them too.
In the West, the capture of the city is now seen not just as a win against Islamist political extremism, but a symbolic victory in the battle for what may be the world’s most dysfunctional country.
The UN covers Amisom’s budget, and most of that outlay is covered by Europe. Washington has put at least $500 million into Amisom and the Somali army since 2007.
The Pentagon and CIA, which have hugely increased operations in Somalia since the 9/11 attacks, provide intelligence support to Amisom, along with the British, French and Israelis. Despite all this help, Kenya’s victory in Kismayu was greeted with surprised joy. No one expected the KDF to prevail so quickly.
But it is also the case that Kenya was never interested in pitching into the bloody battle for the capital, Mogadishu, which has killed over 500 Amisom troops.
Kenya has always wanted to get in and out of Somalia as quickly as possible, and it has known all along that taking Kismayu, just 180 miles from the Kenya-Somalia border and the nearest city, with a massive show of force could be the way to do that.
Capturing Kismayu was “significant for Kenya because there were serious questions about its willingness to fight,” a Western diplomat told me.
The assault on the city was well choreographed – and, as it turned out, overkill.
A field commander told me, “The opposition was not what we expected.” When I asked why that was, a faint smile overtook his lips, and he said, “Maybe they knew they were up against a better force.”
Read part 2 on December 31, 2012
James Verini is a Nairobi-based contributor to Foreign Policy. The article was distributed by the Public Information Unit of the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS).
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