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.

The antagonistic shift suggests that Kenya could be opening a new, more aggressive chapter in its history. Since independence in 1963, Kenyan soldiers have been largely content to collect comfortable salaries in return for their non-involvement in politics. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the good life in the military became a valuable source of patronage to ministers and other public officials. Recruitment and promotion was based on political connections, ethnicity, and loyalty, rather than merit. As a result, with the exceptions of a brief mutiny in 1964 and a failed coup in 1982, Kenya suffered none of the overthrows and militaristic rule that blighted African states such as Uganda and Nigeria. 

In recent years, however, Kenya's armed forces have been trained and equipped to do much more than parade on national holidays. From Washington's perspective, the rise of Islamism in the Horn of Africa put Kenya on the front lines in the global fight against terrorism. The State Department increased counterterrorism funding to Nairobi from $4.5 million in 2006 to an estimated $8 million in 2011. Senior officers regularly travel to the United States for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency training; such instruction has become a core part of the curriculum at the Kenya Military Academy.

Beyond military circles, the incursion has also turned out to be quite popular with the Kenyan public. "I can't recall any action this government has ever undertaken that has received such unalloyed public support," veteran Nairobi-based journalist Gitau Warigi wrote recently. Public criticism has been virtually nonexistent. To the contrary, politicians are grandstanding. "This is a war," Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said late last month. "We will fight until the enemy is defeated." The boasting stands in sharp contrast to Odinga's past criticism of the previous government's aggressive counterterrorism approach. 

But the war in Somalia, and the public's rally behind it, comes at a particularly vulnerable political moment in Kenya. Elections are scheduled for next year, and opportunists are trying to take advantage of a vacuum. President Mwai Kibaki is retiring. Two of the men once counted among his most likely successors, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, are awaiting an announcement by the International Criminal Court. In January they will find out if war crimes charges against them relating to the post-election violence of early 2008 will go to a full trial. 

Ambitious second-tier politicians, such as George Saitoti, the minister for internal security who helped bolster the case for invading Somalia, hope that tapping the patriotic fervor will further their own political aims. But Saitoti's maneuverings are dangerous. Saitoti is responsible, too, for the internal security crackdown that accompanied the invasion -- in recent weeks, Saitoti's forces pressed into the country's Muslim and Somali ethnic communities, arresting supposed al Shabaab sympathizers. Exact numbers of arrests are unknown, but efforts to crack down on groups like the Mombasa Republican Council, a vehicle for grievances held by coastal Muslims with little apparent connection to al Shabaab, suggest that the police are applying little discretion in using force.

Muslims in Kenya already have good reason to feel marginalized. Between 1963 and 1967, the new Kenyan nation-state fought a low-intensity war against Somali secessionists. Since independence, a lack of public investment in health and education and inequalities in access to land have left many Muslims along the coast feeling alienated. Meanwhile, Somalia's decades of instability have sent shock waves across the border as guns and armed gangs flowed into Kenya. Nairobi has often met such threats with coercive and repressive measures, such as imposing movement restrictions against Kenya's own Somali population. In return, Muslim communities have a long-standing suspicion of the Kenyan state and its motives. In recent years, the rising influence of Christian evangelism has introduced overt Islamophobia into the public debate.

All of this lends popular support to a war against Somalia today, but such enthusiasm may prove to be short-lived. The deaths of Kenyan soldiers or revenge attacks by al Shabaab on Kenyan soil would spark unease among the general public, which is unused to military action and its violent repercussions. Kenya's leaders have set no deadline for withdrawal -- yet there is little reason to expect that the Kenyans will be able to succeed in stabilizing any part of southern Somalia where many others, including, most recently, the Ethiopians, failed just three years ago. 

This should give the leadership in Nairobi pause. Kenya has spent much of its first 50 years of independence worrying about its own problems. But there are now signs that the country is prepared to turn its economic influence into greater diplomatic strength. For example, Nairobi has threatened diplomatic sanctions against another of East Africa's pariah states, Eritrea, in response to its support of al Shabaab. Moreover, there are other far more delicate issues of border security than just Somalia, as Kenya has long been at odds with Uganda over territorial claims to islands in Lake Victoria. 

From a tactical point of view, it appears that Kenya's troop deployment has reaped no real benefit. Actual conflict inside Somalia has proved fleeting. Kenyan forces have engaged in only a handful of direct confrontations with al Shabaab fighters. More notable were the deaths of five people in the town of Jilib during the accidental bombing of a refugee camp by the Kenyan Air Force on October 30. Kenyan military sources insist that the target of the attack was a nearby al Shabaab base. Kenya's National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a government body set up to monitor inter-communal relations, has denounced the "fear mongering" that is likely to "fuel xenophobic attacks" against Somalis living in Kenya. Nairobi's aggression has seemingly sparked a new backlash by al Shabaab sympathisers within Kenya: two grenade attacks hit Nairobi in late October.

Economic regional integration has served Kenya well, but a newly hawkish foreign policy that jeopardizes domestic stability threatens to undermine one of Africa's foremost success stories. And while Kenyan troops continue to march on Somali territory, it is worth remembering that Nairobi plays a far more important regional role as a hub for trade and infrastructure than it ever could as a policeman.

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  • DANIEL BRANCH is Associate Professor of African History at the University of Warwick. His is the author, most recently, of Kenya: Between Hope and Despair 1963-2011.
  • More By Daniel Branch