As the world was riveted to the events in Iran last week, the beleaguered government of Somalia put out an S.O.S. for international military support in its deteriorating fight against al Shabab guerrillas and other radical opposition forces. Thus far, only Kenyan government officials have publicly responded with threats of military intervention.
But there remains the possibility that troops from Ethiopia, Djibouti, the Sudan and Uganda might be deployed in a combined warmaking/peacekeeping operation under the banner of the African Union and other international and regional organizations. More than 5,000 peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi are currently deployed to protect government operations in and around Mogadishu, but in recent days they have been targeted by anti-government militants who refuse to recognize their neutral status.
The response from Kenya seems to suggest that the profile of the intervention would shift from peacekeeping to combat operations against al Shabab. In response, a spokesman for al Shabab said that any foreign troops "would be sent home in coffins."
Kenya has many reasons to try to deal with the chaos on its border. The primary one is al Shabab's close ties with al-Qaida, which put Kenya in the crosshairs of international jihadists. Both the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998 as well as the subsequent Paradise Hotel bombing in Kikambala were coordinated by al-Qaida-backed operatives coming across Kenya's long and virtually unpoliced border with Somalia. Kenya also has problems with its own homegrown militants, many of whom train and get both financing and weapons from Somali brethren.
Another reason for Kenyan concern is the rapid increase in recent weeks in the number of Internally Displaced Persons arriving at border towns along the Kenya-Ethiopia border. There are already 160,000 Somali refugees in the Dadaab camps on the Kenyan side of the border, most of whom have been living there since the early 1990s.
A further deterioration in the situation in Somalia will send tens of thousands more fleeing towards the borders, and only an enormous commitment by the international aid community will prevent another humanitarian debacle. In the meantime, aid agencies are bickering with the Kenyan government over land and construction issues, despite the fact that the number of refugees will likely double by year's end.
This is a developing situation that the Europeans and Americans should pay careful attention to. The recent "World War" in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which troops from multiple foreign countries ran riot for several years in the name of stabilization, led to millions of civilian deaths. Somalia has far fewer riches than the Congo to plunder, but no matter what happens, civilians are likely to bear the brunt of the fighting. And any survey of Somali history suggests that nothing radicalizes the population like an invasion of foreigners.
Kenya's offer to help with the mess next door is laudable, but this is a job that Kenya can't do alone. Unfortunately, the "Black Hawk Down" debacle has not only soured U.S. strategists from lending a hand, it has also demonstrated that Somali fighters will always exceed expectations when it comes to violence and durability.
For Kenya and Somalia's other neighbors, that can only be a bad thing.
(First published in World Politics Review June 22, 2009)