By Richard Lough
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya's deployment inside Somalia lacks the military muscle to deal a mortal blow to Islamist rebels blamed for a spate of kidnappings and risks galvanizing support for the militants plagued by internal rifts and popular resentment.
With half an eye on elections next year, Kenya's political leaders could ill-afford to do nothing after the abductions of foreigners and last week launched an offensive against the al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab rebels, now hunkering down for battle in their southern Somalia strongholds.
The east African country has watched nervously during the last two decades as first warlords then Islamist insurgents reduced the Somali government to impotency. It is desperate to prevent the conflict spilling over the border.
The latest wave of abductions on the Kenyan coast and from the world's largest refugee camp at Dadaab in the northeast of the country exposed how porous the semi-arid frontier remains.
But Kenya's military operation comes at a time when al Shabaab is on the back foot, beset by a widening split amongst commanders favoring a nationalist cause and those bent on a more international jihadist agenda. This divide led to the rebels abandoning Mogadishu for the first time in five years in August.
The rifts were exacerbated by al Shabaab's poor handling of the famine ravaging Somalia, which stoked popular anger at their draconian rule.
Somalis, however, have traditionally fiercely opposed foreign intervention and a drawn out military offensive risks rallying rebel support, especially if civilian casualties are high.
"Al Shabaab was losing ground and popular support. Foreign intervention at this time is counterproductive," said Afyare Elmi, a Somali political scientist at Qatar University's International Affairs department.
"It will create conditions that would nourish violent extremism by giving al Shabaab a cause and raise the motivation of its fighters. This was a strategic mistake on the part of Kenya."
Kenya is tight-lipped on its ultimate objective, but says it wants to reduce al Shabaab's effectiveness. It is not clear how many Kenyan troops have been sent into Somalia although local media puts the deployment at some 4,000 soldiers.
The region's biggest economy may intend simply to push the rebels away from the frontier in the hope that allied Somali forces it has helped train and arm can occupy the void.
More ambitious would be to crush al Shabaab in the port city of Kismayu, the nerve center of the rebels' southern operations, a source of funds, and the base for its several hundred-strong foreign combatants -- some of whom are graduates of al Qaeda's training camps.
Kismayu residents, increasingly familiar with the sight of drones dropping bombs on al Shabaab targets, fear an assault is nigh after warplanes swooped low in the skies above the city.
A jet on Saturday struck two rebel bases in Kismayu although it was not immediately clear whose airforce it belonged to.
Seizing and holding Kismayu would mark a big step toward regaining control of the south and is the stated goal of Somalia's military top brass.
"Kenya does not have the capacity to drive al Shabaab out (of southern Somalia) and keep them out," said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia.
"The best it can do is remove al Shabaab from the border area, and possibly Kismayu, and then try to replace al Shabaab with Somali forces friendly to Kenya."
J. Peter Pham, Africa director with U.S. think-tank the Atlantic Council, agreed Kenya's forces did not appear strong enough to root out al Shabaab, but cautioned the intervention was "more than enough to stir them up."
"The only thing that will be accomplished is that a few (Kenyan) politicians can posture, albeit at the cost of tensions being inflamed and allowing al Shabaab and other militants ... to once again rally Somalis around them under the banner of nationalism to resist a 'foreign invader'," said Pham.
Somali lawmaker Yusuf Mire Serar welcomed Kenya's incursion but said it did not appear to have any long-term vision.
"It seems they are just reacting to abductions without thinking of the clear national vision and strategy with the help of the TFG (Transitional Federal Government) and the already international and regional actors on the ground including the African Union," Serar told Reuters in Mogadishu.
"Instead they are empowering the already dead al Shabaab by giving them chances to mobilize people into war again."
DESTINED TO BACKFIRE?
Al Shabaab has threatened to take the "war of flames" back across the frontier if Kenya does not withdraw its troops.
Kenya is not the first of Somalia's neighbors to send boots onto Somali soil, just as the United States did in the early 1990s to consequences immortalized in the film "Black Hawk Down."
In late 2006, Ethiopia, a far superior military power to Kenya, sent thousands of troops and columns of tanks into the lawless country with the tacit backing of Washington, ostensibly to protect its borders.
Seen by Western powers as a bulwark against a rising tide of Islamic militancy in the region, Ethiopia routed the Islamist Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from de facto power in Mogadishu.
The Islamists regrouped in Kismayu and from the ashes of the ICU rose al Shabaab.
Professing loyalty to al Qaeda, the rebels launched their insurgency in early 2007. Ethiopia pulled its troops from Somalia two years later.
Al Shabaab's bloody campaign rages on and has killed tens of thousands of civilians.
Ethiopia's intervention was seen as a public relations coup for al Shabaab and Kenya risks the same if it fails to deliver a mortal blow to al Shabaab in southern Somalia, said analyst Mark Schroeder of global intelligence company Stratfor.
Pham said even if Kenya delivers a knockout blow to al Shabaab, it should still fear attack from threats already present in the country which pose an unwelcome danger with presidential elections around one year away.
Kenya's largely Muslim coast and its huge Somali populations in the capital and the Dadaab refugee camp, which has more than 400,000 residents, are seen as fertile recruiting grounds for Islamist militants.
"Even if (Kenya) were to deal a mortal blow to al Shabaab ... (it) would still increase the risk of 'sleeper cells' or even self-radicalized 'lone wolf' sympathizers to respond by carrying out attacks within Kenya," said Pham.