Having crossed the Somali border on Sunday to launch operation Protect Kenya, the Kenyan army now faces a tough fight for control of Afmadow, reports defence analyst Anthony Tucker-Jones.
Kenyan troops are now up to 120km inside Somalia and preparing to do battle for the Somali town of Afmadow in the next phase of operation Linda Nchi or Protect Kenya.
By Monday the Kenyan military had rolled first through Tabta then Qoqani, some 30km west of Afmadow – this followed two days of ground and aerial bombardment of Somali militant positions. According to locals one Kenyan column consisted of 32 trucks and hundreds of troops.
However, at the same time Ras Kamboni, a militia that supports the Western backed Somali government, were just 12km to the west of the town at the village of Cag Libaax.
It was Somali transitional federal troops backed by Ras Kamboni who drove fighters of the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab from Tabta, in an operation that left 10 dead and 15 wounded combatants. Two al-Shabaab ‘Technicals’ (pickup trucks mounting heavy weapons) were also destroyed in the fighting.
Kenyan air force jets have been buzzing Afmadow signalling to al-Shabaab that it must withdraw or face the consequences.
Despite this, according to eyewitnesses, al-Shabaab fighters have been digging defences around the town and trucking in reinforcements. There have also been reports of heavily armed al-Shabbab ‘Technicals’ heading for the town.
While al-Shabaab was clearly caught on the hop by Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia, it is unlikely to surrender Afmadow without a fight.
This is a strategic point lying 90km north of their key stronghold at the city port of Kismayo.
Reports indicate that al-Shabaab has stripped the garrison at Kismayo and called on the residents to wage jihad against the Kenyan army. How many people have answered this call to Holy War is unclear but dozens of convoys have left the city.
Al-Shabaab seized around 100 trucks from the Lower Shabelle region, just outside Mogadishu late on Sunday in order to move its fighters south.
Many residents of Afmadow fearing the worst have reportedly been fleeing towards the Kenyan border.
While the Kenyan and Somali government forces have been delayed by the heavy rains and resulting mud, Kenyan Army spokesman Major Emmannuel Chirchir has made it clear that Afmadow is their objective.
Although the 800-1,500 strong Kenyan battle group backed by armoured vehicles, artillery, and aircraft has the firepower to flatten Afmadow, its troops will not be looking forward to the bloody business of house-to-house fighting.
In light of this brigade sized operation it is evident that the Kenyan government had been planning this operation for some time and that it was not a spur of the moment reaction to the recent kidnappings.
Kenya has endured not only disruption to its vital tourist industry, but also the kidnap of two soldiers, shelling of a security post and the laying of landmines and improvised explosive devices along the border by Somali militants.
Al-Shabaab knows only too well that if it can inflict sufficient casualties on the Kenyan military at Afmadow then Nairobi’s resolve may wilt in the face of disapproving domestic or international opinion.
Meanwhile Nairobi has been put on a heightened alert following al-Shabaab’s threats to launch revenge terror bombing attacks on the city.
Anthony Tucker-Jones is author of ‘The Rise of Militant Islam.’