When Kenya dispatched some 2,000 troops across the border into Somalia on October 16, officials in Nairobi argued that they'd had little choice. After a series of cross-border raids by the Somalia-based Islamist militant group al Shabaab, Kenya's internal security minister, George Saitoti, said, "Kenya has been and remains an island of peace, and we shall not allow criminals from Somalia, which has been fighting for over two decades, to destabilize our peace." A recent spate of kidnappings of tourists and aid workers inside Kenya, Saitoti and others said, was the final straw. With its largely peaceful post-independence history, Kenya has built itself into a regional economic powerhouse, and a serious threat to that prosperity would have to be countered. Accordingly, Nairobi invaded its neighbor to secure its eastern border and to create a buffer zone inside Somalia.
But this case for war is less than convincing, as it is difficult to argue that the threat from al Shabaab is substantially worse than it has been in years past. Kenyan troops have armed, trained, and organized proxy forces to fight al Shabaab on the border since at least 2009, albeit to no great effect. For at least three years, al Shabaab has threatened armed attacks on Kenya; cross-border raids by al Shabaab fighters have been a fact of life in northeastern Kenya for some time. In fact, by some estimates, the overall threat from al Shabaab has declined in recent months: the UN's envoy to Somalia said in August that Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers had actually weakened the al Qaeda-affiliated militants.
Nairobi's incursion into Somalia was spurred less by the threat of al Shabaab and more by domestic military and political dynamics. Kenya will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its independence in 2013, and so far the country has never once gone to war with another state. But recently, as Washington has funnelled counterterrorism funds into East Africa and underwritten a stronger Kenyan military, the country's military has grown more confident and combative.