NAIROBI, Kenya -- U.S. cables made public by WikiLeaks show that the United States warned Kenya two years ago not to launch an offensive in southern Somalia against al-Qaida-allied al-Shabab rebels, but a U.S. official also offered to check on the "feasibility" of a U.S. review of the plans.
Kenya went ahead with an invasion a month ago, saying it was a response to a recent series of kidnappings near the border between the two countries. But the existence of the cables undercuts Kenya's claim that the move had not been long planned.
The cables paint a contradictory picture of whether the United States encouraged Kenya's invasion of its neighbor.
Taken as a whole, they seem to lend credence to Washington's claims that it had neither encouraged nor supported the invasion. But one particularly lively cable depicts a senior U.S. official asking Kenya's foreign minister if Kenyan troops shouldn't consider trying to take Kismayo, the al-Shabab stronghold seaport, on their own or with the help of Somali militias, and promising the review of the plans by an American team. The tactics described in that cable match the plan Kenya appears to be trying to execute.
While reliable independent information from the ground is scarce, the Kenyan offensive appears to have stalled one month in. The military has cited heavy rains and mud for slowing its movements, but Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based Somali analyst at the International Crisis Group, says that the military is hesitating to proceed into al-Shabab territory because the Islamist group is refusing to engage the Kenyan troops openly.
"The Kenyans were hoping to fight on their terms. Al-Shabab has now turned the equation," Abdi said.
Kenya could be trying to buy time in hopes of more outside assistance. Kenya has called for a blockade of Kismayo from the sea, and on Wednesday it hosted Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his Somali counterpart, Sharif Ahmed, to shore up regional backing of its military campaign.
A bogged-down campaign is one of the reasons U.S. officials cited, according to the cables, for opposing a Kenyan operation.
According to a cable dated Feb. 2, 2010, Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, provided Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula with a variety of reasons that the U.S. believed a proposed Kenyan incursion could backfire during a Jan. 30, 2010, meeting in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Kenyan officials had been aggressively pitching the idea over several months, the cables show, asking U.S. officials to back their plan to create a semi-autonomous buffer zone on Kenya's border with Somalia. The Kenyans vowed that not "a single Kenyan boot" would enter Somalia and that the entire operation would be conducted by Kenyan-trained Somali troops.
Carson, however, warned that the operation would be more complicated and expensive than expected. He also said such an invasion might spark conflict between Somalia's combustible clan and sub-clan networks and weaken the authority of the central government in Mogadishu.
Carson also questioned Kenya's resolve in the case of defeat or setback and wondered if its leaders were prepared to deal with discontent back home if the war turned sour.
The cable said Carson "concluded by suggesting that there shold (sic) be more conventional and convenient ways to accomplish the same end. Could, for example, the trained Somalis help Kenya to re-take Kismayo?"
The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.
November 18, 2011, Miami Herald