NAIROBI, Kenya — U.S. cables made public by WikiLeaks show that the United States warned Kenya two years ago not to launch an offensive in southern Somalia against al Qaida-allied al Shabab rebels, but a U.S. official also offered to check on the "feasibility" of a U.S. review of the plans.
Kenya went ahead with an invasion a month ago, saying it was a response to a recent series of kidnappings near the border between the two countries. But the existence of the cables undercuts Kenya's claim that the move had not been long planned.
The cables paint a contradictory picture of whether the United States encouraged Kenya's invasion of its neighbor.
Taken as a whole, they seem to lend credence to Washington's claims that it had neither encouraged nor supported the invasion. But one particularly lively cable depicts a senior U.S. official asking Kenya's foreign minister if Kenyan troops shouldn't consider trying to take Kismayo, the Shabab stronghold seaport, on their own or with the help of Somali militias, and promising the review of the plans by an American team. The tactics described in that cable match the plan Kenya appears to be trying to execute.
While reliable independent information from the ground is scarce, the Kenyan offensive appears to have stalled one month in. The military has cited heavy rains and mud for slowing its movements, but Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based Somali analyst at the International Crisis Group, says that the military is hesitating to proceed into Shabab territory because the Islamist group is refusing to engage the Kenyan troops openly.
"The Kenyans were hoping to fight on their terms. Al Shabab has now turned the equation," said Abdi.
Kenya could be trying to buy time in hopes of more outside assistance. Kenya has called for a blockade of Kismayo from the sea, and on Wednesday it hosted Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his Somali counterpart, Sharif Ahmed, to shore up regional backing of its military campaign.
A bogged-down campaign is one of the reasons U.S. officials cited, according to the cables, for opposing a Kenyan operation.
According to a cable dated Feb. 2, 2010, Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, provided Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula with a variety of reasons that the U.S. believed a proposed Kenyan incursion could backfire during a Jan. 30, 2010, meeting in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
Kenyan officials had been aggressively pitching the idea over several months, the cables show, asking U.S. officials to back their plan to create a semi-autonomous buffer zone on Kenya's border with Somalia. The Kenyans vowed that not "a single Kenyan boot" would enter Somalia and that the entire operation would be conducted by Kenyan-trained Somali troops.
Carson, however, warned that the operation would be more complicated and expensive than expected. He also said such an invasion might spark conflict between Somalia's combustible clan and sub-clan networks and weaken the authority of the central government in Mogadishu.
Carson also questioned Kenya's resolve in the case of defeat or setback and wondered if its leaders were prepared to deal with discontent back home if the war turned sour.
The cable said Carson "concluded by suggesting that there shold (sic) be more conventional and convenient ways to accomplish the same end. Could, for example, the trained Somalis help Kenya to re-take Kismayo?"
According to the cable, the National Security Council's senior director for African affairs, Michelle Gavin, then expressed the United States' willingness to brainstorm other strategies with Kenya.
The Kenyan delegation, which included Kenya's minister of defense, the head of its intelligence service and the chief of its armed forces, continued to press the Americans passionately for support, with Wetangula summing up their arguments by pleading, "I may not have been as convincing as I should have been," but "the threat is real," according to the cable.
Carson ended the meeting by promising to "look into the feasibility" of sending a U.S. team to Kenya to review the plan's technical details, but he told the Kenyans that he "still maintained deep reservations" about it, the cable said.
The cable noted this was the third time Wetangula had made a personal pitch to Carson to support the plans, which would involve 2,000 Kenyan-trained Somali troops in an offensive. The end goal was to create a new semi-autonomous administration in Jubaland, the southern region of Somalia. Kenyan officials argued that Kenya's poorly secured border with Somalia was a major national security threat.
Since Kenya's invasion last month, U.S. officials have denied that the U.S. was involved in planning Kenya's offensive or was providing assistance — a position that appears to be backed by the deep skepticism the cables show U.S. officials had for the plan.
"I don't think it points to an American plot," said Roger Middleton, an analyst in London for Chatham House, Britain's premier foreign policy think tank. "For me the cables make the case a bit stronger that Kenya went on this on its own."
But Middleton also said that the United States, Britain and France now have a "begrudging acceptance" of the invasion and are likely to be providing intelligence and other covert forms of support now that the operation is underway.
"In the short term, people would be happy if Kenya succeeds and takes Kismayo. But I haven't seen a plan of what comes next. And that's the real worry," Middleton said.
The diplomatic cables show that, at the beginning of last year, Washington shared those concerns.
Kenya tried repeatedly to persuade Washington to ease its opposition to its Jubaland project. In addition to Wetangula's pitches to Carson, senior Kenyan officials pitched a number of U.S. representatives around the same time: Karl Wycoff, the deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, on Dec. 8, 2009; Alexander Vershbow, the assistant secretary of defense, on Jan. 26, 2010; and Daniel Benjamin, the ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism, on Jan. 29. All U.S. officials told Kenya that the U.S. had strong reservations about the plan, according to the cables.
The British government also was pessimistic of the plan, according to a Jan. 15, 2010, cable from the U.S. Embassy in London.
Opposition also came from Uganda, according to another cable, which said that on Jan. 31, 2010, in Addis Ababa, Ugandan President Museveni questioned Kenya's ability to wage unconventional war in Somalia, criticizing Kenya's military as a career army and asking rhetorically, "Is Kenya used to fighting like this?" Museveni also questioned the ideological commitment of Kenya's proxy Somali militias.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi offered only qualified support and said he shared U.S. concerns. "We are not enthusiastic, but we are hoping for success," he told U.S. officials on that same day, according to a separate cable.
The foreign minister of Djibouti, a small country to the north of Somalia that hosts a major U.S. military base, told the U.S. he feared Kenya's invasion could produce the same ill consequences as the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2006, which prompted Shabab to launch its insurgency in southern Somalia.
The concerted rebuff had one notable exception, however: China. A February 2010 diplomatic cable from the U.S.'s Nairobi embassy says that in January, as Kenya was feverishly pitching its Western and regional allies for support, the Chinese government gave Kenya weapons, ammunition and uniforms for use by the Somali force that Kenya was training for the task.
The Kenyan military denied support from the Chinese in its current operations. "If there is under-the-table support, I am not aware," said Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, the Kenyan military spokesman.
Chirchir also denied that China gave military support to Kenya's trained Somali militias two years ago. He would not directly respond to how Kenya's current military offensive is related to the Jubaland project as laid out in the Wikileaks cables.
"There is no such thing as the Jubaland initiative," Chirchir said. "We attacked because our tourism industry was attacked."
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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