Who is really winning Kenya's Al-Shabaab war?

In this handout photograph released by the UN-AU Information Support Team, Ugandan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia fire a mortar round during an advance into insurgent Al Shabaab territory, in Mogadishu, on January 20, 2012. PHOTO | AFP 

Just over three months ago, Kenya's army crossed the border to launch an incursion against Somalia militant group Al-Shabaab in what it said was meant to protects itself from the grave threat posed to its economic and security interests by the fundamentalists.

Ethiopian troops, weeks later, rolled into the country to shore up the offensive against the Islamist group that has been seeking to topple the weak transitional government.

Some 100 days later into the operation, Al-Shabaab says that Kenyan forces have made little headway in taming the group.

Addressing loyalists through Al-Shabaab run broadcaster Al-Andalus recently, group spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Raghe alias Sheikh Ali Dhere said that both Ethiopia and Kenya had failed to so far to realise their objectives in Somalia, which has been without a central government since 1991.

In a fiery speech, the cleric said that Kenyan and Ethiopian troops may have crossed the borders, but they had fallen short of capturing key territories in southern and central Somalia controlled by Al-Shabaab.

"Our jihadists (holy warriors) are fit to fight both Ethiopian and Kenyan forces,” he said.

"At the beginning, Kenyans thought they were heading towards a defenceless territory,” said Sheik Ali Dhere.

The spokesman claimed that the Kenyan forces were "trapped" in limited territory, mentioning a strip of land between Tabta village and Qoqani town in Lower Juba region, west of Kismayu, the regional capital, some 500 km south of Mogadishu, that is the group's nerve centre.

"The Kenyan troops in those two towns cannot help each other as Al-Shabaab fighters are there to ambush any moving force," claimed Sheikh Ali Dhere.

He said that this applied to places like Eel Adde and Damas villages in Gedo region.

Ethiopian troops

"Kenyan army units cannot proceed forwards or assist each the other," said the cleric. "Their obvious desire is to go back to the border."

The Ethiopian troops in December took the strategic regional capital of Beledweyne, some 335 kilometres north of Mogadishu. (Read: Al-Shabaab lose key central Somalia town)

Admitting it had been a blow, Sheikh Ali Dhere blamed the locals for the loss.

"The Ethiopians took advantage of the Somali people challenging each other on clan basis," he said before making a clarion call.

"Let’s pull ourselves together to push the Ethiopians back to the border (42 km north of the town of Beledweyne)."

Sheikh Ali Dhere's version is, however, at odds with reports coming out of Nairobi. Kenyan officials have repeatedly stated that their forces had killed hundreds of militants and that they were on the front foot.

There have also been military reports of tens of Al-Shabaab leaders killed or maimed, especially in air strikes. (Read: Kenya airstrikes kill 'over 60' Somali militants).

The Kenya intervention is undoubtedly the largest since the entry of Ethiopian troops into Somalia in 2006 to support the Transitional Federal Government that was under siege from the Union of the Islamic Courts.

It was also the first venture of Kenyan forces into Somali territory, breaking the military neutrality it has maintained over the last half-century of self-rule.

So, in the resulting propaganda war, who is telling the truth?

The crossfire has seen unarmed civilians unfortunately caught in the middle with reports of women, children and refugees hurt in the fighting.

Peacekeeping force

Although there is no fixed number of Kenyans presently operating inside Somalia, the best estimates indicate about 3,000 soldiers. This approximation was tactically supported by the African Union and the United Nations act of recognising Kenyan troops as part of the AU peacekeeping force in Somalia. (Read: AU approves Kenyan troops merger with Amisom

"By the fact that AU needed extra troops and decided to include the Kenyans in their service, the latter cannot be more than 3,000,” says Colonel Mohamoud Ghedi Afrah, a former senior officer in the now defunct Somali army, without offering further clarification.

Kenyan officials, including its President, Mwai Kibaki, have been careful to state that their forces were not fighting Somalia, but only the militant group.

But what is clearer is that following the past months of war, neither Kenya nor Al-Shabaab will be the same again.

Kenya is having to expend substantial effort and resources as it looks to pulverise the fanatical Islamists that include diehard international jihadists known in Somalia as Al-Mujahedeen Al-Muhajereen (migrant jihadists).

The migrant jihadists, from every corner of the world, have pooled their best talents in inflicting harm on their targets, no matter the consequences. And it looks as if Al-Shabaab militants are increasingly relying on the operational expertise of their fellow hardliners.

Kenya may be caught in a drawn out war that places its security--and overall economy--at greater risk, the militants say.

His voice vibrating with pride, Sheikh Ali Dhere claimed that Al-Shabaab militants have infiltrated Kenyan territory as much as the Kenyans have ventured into Somalia.

"We are ready to strike anytime," said the forthright spokesman. "They (Kenyans) can better protect their tourism and other resources by withdrawing their forces (from territory controlled by Al-Shabaab known as Wilayaat al-Islamiya),” he added, on the 100th day of the war.

Inspired Islamists

But as long as the Kenyan soldiers are not washing their boots at the sandy beaches of Kismayu, Al-Shabaab leaders and loyalists in the Wilaya (Authority) of Jubaland look to be content ruling in their stronghold and jewel in the crown.

In contrast, Kenyan officials portray Al-Shabaab as a dying force that is being squeezed by the alliance being formed around it.

Forces from the three frontline states, namely Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, are already in Somalia, and their numbers could increase any time.

The Ugandans and Burundians have formed a solid base for the peacekeeping of the AU Mission in Somalia, Amisom, whose mandate includes supporting the pro-government forces battling Al-Shabaab militants.

In addition, local forces that include the TFG army, Ahlu Sunna wal-Jamea - the moderate Sufis Islamists-- and Ras Kamboni Brigade have all their guns trained on Al-Shabaab positions.

American pilotless drones also appear to be making matters worse for the Al-Qaeda inspired Islamists. They are assumed to be responsible for strikes that cause the most deadly consequences, targeting Al-Shabaab training and logistical camps as well as the most prominent migrant jihadists.

Experts like Col Afrah believe that the showdown will continue well into the next 100 days of Kenyan troop presence in Somalia.

"There could be a thin line between success and failure,” said Col Afrah. “It all depends on crafted strategy, implemented tactics and above all the ability to magnetise the local and international public opinion.”

But for the common folks, it is a cessation of hostilities and a stabilisation of the war torn country that matters most.

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