Turkey and Kenya ‘mow the grass.' But the grass will grow back
The past two weeks have witnessed two little-covered but significant cross-border military incursions. On Oct. 20, Turkey sent its army into Kurdish Iraq to hunt its longtime nemesis, the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK. The Kenyan army entered southern Somalia on Oct. 16 in an attempt to hunt down al-Shabaab militants, blamed by the government for kidnappings of foreign tourists and aid workers inside Kenya. These incursions join a long tradition of raids into ungoverned spaces. However, this lineage offers up few examples of lasting success against troublesome militants.
The Turkish army sent 22 battalions, numbering about 10,000 men and supported by fighter aircraft and helicopters, to attack five PKK sites inside Iraq. This large raid, for which the Turkish army had clearly spent much time preparing, occurred just one day after coordinated PKK attacks inside Turkey killed 26 soldiers and police. Since July, an additional 27 Turkish soldiers had been killed in various PKK attacks and ambushes, incidents which no doubt instigated the army's preparation for the Oct. 20 invasion.
Turkish raids against PKK bases inside Iraq have been going on for years and the latest offensive will almost certainly not be the last. The best hope for a lasting solution will be a common strategy worked between the Turkish government and Iraqi Kurdish authorities. According to the New York Times, the two governments are cooperating on the PKK problem. But this cooperation is also not new and has yet to fix the problem. With the United States soon to remove all of its troops from Iraq, including those that are policing the Kurdish-Arab fault line inside Iraq, no one is expecting the Kurdish regional government to put much effort into the PKK problem.
Since September, militants from Somalia have kidnapped five European tourists and aid workers, dealing a severe blow to Kenya's critical tourist industry. Starting a border war might not seem the best way to restore positive press coverage. But Kenyan policymakers likely concluded that simply letting the situation drift was not an answer either.
On Oct. 16, the Kenyan government ordered two army battalions, with armored vehicles and air support, into Somalia. After over a week of maneuvering in southern Somalia, on Oct. 28 Kenyan troops finally had a significant clash with al-Shabaab militants, whom Kenyan authorities blamed for the kidnappings inside Kenya (an accusation al-Shabaab denied). This week, France said it would support the Kenyan incursion with air transport of military equipment to the Somali border.
According to the BBC, Somalis along the border welcomed the arrival of the Kenyan army and the dispersal of the al-Shabaab militants previously lurking there. If true, this presents the possibility that the troops might be able to stand up pro-Kenyan Somali militias that could prevent the reinfiltration of the al-Shabaab into the border area after Kenyan forces return home.
Unfortunately for Kenya, foreign intervention in Somalia has a very poor record, as U.S. veterans of the "Black Hawk Down" incident from 1993 recall all too well. Then, a U.N. humanitarian relief mission, organized with the best of intentions, was drawn into Somali factional fighting, ending in a debacle. More recently, Ethiopia's invasion and occupation of Mogadishu in Dec. 2006 ended two years later with a retreat home after accomplishing almost nothing.
Turkey, Kenya, and other countries bordering ungoverned spaces will have to contemplate how to provide security over the long haul. The establishment of security zones on the other side of a border may seem appealing. But no one will want to replicate Israel's experience in southern Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. During that time, the Israeli army patrolled a security zone and recruited local militias. The result was an enervating guerilla war and the metastasizing of Hezbollah, which grew into a state-within-a-state.
As with Turkey and the PKK, Kenya likely faces a future of periodic clashes with al-Shabaab. They will "mow the grass," which has a nasty habit of growing back. Not much of a solution, especially for policymakers under pressure to "do something."