Why Kenya Should Not Have Gone Into Somalia

10/20/2011 04:59 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011

Kenya's recent military offensive against Al- Shabaab has elicited a worldwide conversation about the political future of war-torn Somalia. Al- Shabaab, an Islamist terror group in Somalia with links to Al- Qaeda, has been suspected of crossing through the Kenyan border and kidnapping foreign aid workers and Western tourists. This posed serious concerns about the Kenyan government's ability to safeguard tourism, the country's bread-winning industry.

Al- Shabaab has been a growing menace to peace in East Africa, having claimed responsibility for a twin bombing that killed more than seventy people in Uganda last year. The wobbly Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, with scant support from the people and limited control of the country, is not in a position to put a bridle on this pestilence. The purported aggressions by Al- Shabaab in Kenya are being considered as a just cause for the country to defend its territorial sovereignty, spurring Kenya to pursue the sect within the borders of Somalia. However, Kenya's hasty military reaction, called Operation Linda Nchi (Defend the Country) and disconcertingly reminiscent of U.S' Operation Enduring Freedom against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, was imprudent and has a high risk of misfiring.

Kenya has waged a war that it can't afford. With a struggling economy, where half of the population is living below the poverty line, unemployment stagnating at 40 percent and the currency at its worst performance, the timing could not have been worse. While it was essential for Kenya to protect its threatened economic interests and salvage its multi-million dollar tourism industry, it drew its guns too soon. Al- Shabaab isn't just Kenya's problem. It poses a security threat to neighboring countries like Uganda, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia and Tanzania. The decision for Kenya to go to war alone was inane. A multilateral African offensive would have been a frugal response. A country that has a budget deficit of about 5 percent of its national income does not have the capacity to bear the economic brunt of war by itself.

At home, the government has declared a crackdown on Al- Shabaab covert operatives and sympathizers. This is because Somalia illegal immigrants, among them Al- Shabaab militants, have taken advantage of the highly pervious immigration institutions in Kenya to acquire legal status. But the proposed swoop won't be without negative consequences to Kenyan citizens. For decades, Kenya has offered sanctuary to Somalia's refugees fleeing from the political turmoil in their motherland. Most of these immigrants are now bona fide Kenyan citizens, having acquired their citizenship through legal channels. Moreover, there's a large population of a Somali ethnic group that is part of Kenya's diverse ethnic composition, with Kenya as their ancestral home as it is to any other Kenyan community. The government's crackdown, primarily directed towards distinctively-looking Somali individuals, will be discriminatory towards an undeserving Kenyan minority.

In the rush to pursue Al Shabaab, Kenya has failed to reckon with the pitfalls of modern warfare in countering terrorism. The Kenyan military, which has never been at war since the country's independence in 1963, is after an elusive enemy in an unfamiliar territory. Innocent Somalis, already dealing with the civil strife that has bedeviled their country for two decades, are bound to be caught in the line of fire. Even the United States, possibly with the best army in the world, found itself at a disadvantage while on an unsuccessful military intervention in Somalia which left more than a thousand civilians dead. As far as I know, Kenya (and any other country for that matter) doesn't possess precise weapons that will guarantee the absence of casualties. The inability to distinguish between civilians and legitimate targets is a moral risk too big to ignore. War against terrorism is won by military intelligence and cautious strategic approaches, and not with tanks and large infantries.

Al- Shabaab has promised to retaliate, and Kenya should not take this threat as hot air. They know every nook and cranny of Kenya's institutions and they will use it to their advantage. This is because corruption has putrefied the foundations of our country's internal security system, leaving its borders porous to marauders and racketeers. In the recent past, disillusioned Kenyan youth, the worst affected demographic by the staggering rate of unemployment, have been the target for recruitment by Al- Shabaab operatives in the country. Our first trenches in this war should have been dug at home, through securing our borders, fighting systemic graft, unemployment and boosting internal security. This misguided venture is not the best allocation of Kenya's scarce resources. The country is at risk of plunging into an incessant expenditure that might not yield any returns, and at the expense of development. Kenya should reconsider its priorities and bring our troops home.