“Kenya’s Forever War,” NYTimes, 29 May 2012.
NAIROBI — A bomb exploded in downtown Nairobi on Monday — the eighth such attack in as many months. It was a far more sophisticated operation than the makeshift grenades that have been tossed from moving cars and into small churches and bars in the recent past. This bomb was big enough to send at least 30 Kenyans to the hospital.
Arriving on the scene to cries of “baba” (“father”), Prime Minister Raila Odinga called the attackers “cowards” and swore, “Kenya will not surrender to terrorists.” The malefactors had not been identified, but he already reasoned that the responsible parties “want to scare investments, they want to scare tourists, they want to scare the people of this country generally.”
Nairobians aren’t particularly scared. By now, when a bomb goes off, we are accustomed to clucking at televised reports through storefront windows and making reassuring calls to loved ones. And we are accustomed to laying blame across the border, in Somalia. On a bus to the bomb site on Monday, I struck up a conversation with a civil servant who had no fear of future attacks, and no doubt about whodunit: “Al-Shabaab, who else?” he shrugged.
Al Shabab, the Somalia-based terrorist group, has claimed responsibility for previous attacks in Kenya. But there are other culprits closer to home: Odinga, President Mwai Kibaki and the Kenyan military brass who last year unilaterally declared open-ended war against Al Shabab, with unacceptable side effects.
“Operation Linda Nchi” (“Protect the Nation”), which began in October, was sold to Kenya with the same “offense as defense” playbook that took the United States into war with Iraq. Ministers assured Kenyans that the invasion would be quick and easy, focused on the “hot pursuit” of kidnappers and pirates who had been terrorizing Kenya’s northern coast.
Like the promises of a slam dunk in Iraq, none of those projections have been true. Eight months on, the fight against Al Shabab — which even Somalia’s president has called “unwelcome” — is proceeding with only middling success. The coalition of troops — Kenyan, Ugandan, Ethiopian and French — has reduced the territory under Shabab control. But Ethiopia withdrew earlier this year (perhaps having learned a lesson from its protracted 2006 invasion of Somalia), and Uganda is on the other side of Kenya from Somalia. As a result, Kenya’s porous perimeter offers terrorists their best hope for ad-hoc retaliation.
Taming Somalia is like taming Afghanistan: no nation has done it, though plenty have bled their treasuries trying.
Living in the Horn of Africa over the past year, I’ve been humbled by the complexities of regional politics. The Kenyan establishment had its reasons to invade Somalia: fighting for vital tourist dollars, punishing rogue pirates and petty kidnappers, protecting the $24 billion port under construction in the northern town of Lamu. Pressure from an America that has itself soured on military intervention is also said to play a role. But I still believe that none of these justifications is worth it.
Another witness to Monday’s bombing voiced what was on everyone’s mind: “You can’t rule out that we’ve created antagonism between our country and Somalia,” he said. The mounting belief that this foreign war is causing domestic violence has become a growing chink in the unified front that Kenyan citizens first projected when Linda Nchi began. Kenya’s failure to confront this could prolong the violence in both places.