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Kenya’s Somali Contradiction

NAIROBI – The attack that killed more than 70 people at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall last week was, according to al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist militant group that carried it out, retribution for Kenya’s intervention in Somalia. That raises a simple question: What is Kenya doing in Somalia, and is it worth the price?

Since Kenya’s army invaded its northeastern neighbor two years ago, the government has told Kenyans that they were going to war against al-Shabaab. But, as with most official pronouncements in Kenya, that story was only partly true.

On the night of October 15, 2011, I lay awake listening to the Kenyan military convoys passing through the border town of Dadaab on their way to Somalia to launch the first foreign military campaign in Kenya’s history. The proximate cause was the abduction of two Spanish aid workers from the vast refugee camps that encircle Dadaab. For the Kenyan authorities, it was the final straw after a series of abductions of Westerners by al-Shabaab; to stop the incursions, they launched what military leaders believed would be a quick campaign.

Over the last two years, some progress has ostensibly been made. The two Spanish aid workers were released last July, and al-Shabaab has attempted only one abduction since. Moreover, the rebels have been dislodged from the southern Somali port of Kismayo, which was once their main base. But al-Shabaab retains control of the majority of Somalia and remains capable of striking Mogadishu, the capital, as well as Nairobi.