Bombardment of Somali Refugee Camp Is Symbolic of Kenya’s Doomed Invasion

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Kenyan PM Raila Odinga, center, attends a joint press conference with Somali PM Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, left, and Kenyan Defense Minister Yusuf Haji, right, at Odinga's offices in Nairobi on Oct. 31, 2011 (Photo: Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty Images)

Kenya’s hasty invasion of its northern neighbor Somalia took a tragic turn late Sunday when, according to witnesses on the ground, the Kenyan air force bombed a refugee camp sheltering those fleeing Somalia’s famine, killing three children and two adults. A spokesman for the Kenyan military in Nairobi insisted that the bombers killed 10 fighters from the militant Islamic group al-Shabab and wounded 45 others in the southern Somali town of Jilib. He dismissed reports of civilian casualties as al-Shabab propaganda. But those statements looked doubtful in light of information from the independent medical-aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which said it was treating victims of an aerial bombardment of a refugee camp near Jilib, an attack its staff witnessed. “I can confirm five dead and 45 wounded,” Gautam Chatterjee, head of mission for MSF Holland in Somalia, told Reuters. “In our hospital in Marare, we received 31 children, nine women and five men. All of them with shrapnel injuries.” Though MSF did not specify whose airplanes carried out the bombing, the only bombers known to be operating in the region are Kenya’s.

For many, the bombing of a camp housing those who had fled the world’s worst famine will come as tragic, literal proof of the misguided nature of Kenya’s military adventure in Somalia. Two weeks ago, Kenya sent between a few hundred and a few thousand troops over its northeastern border into Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabab, a Somalia-based group that is fighting the officially recognized government in Mogadishu and its African Union protection force (made up of Ugandans and Burundians). Al-Shabab also has an international capacity: several dozen of its members are Americans and Europeans, and last year it killed 76 people in simultaneous bomb attacks on two bars in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. For its part, Kenya took action after the recent murder of a British tourist and kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers and two more tourists (one British and one — who later died — French). The attacks, which Kenya blamed on al-Shabab, occurred in the past few weeks near the Somali border.

(PHOTOS: Collateral Crisis — the Catastrophic Famine in Somalia)

From the first, Kenya’s action has appeared poorly thought out. Somalia, after all, is not a place to invade lightly. U.N. and U.S. attempts to back a humanitarian operation in 1993 ended in the firefight known as Blackhawk Down, when 18 American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu. An earlier Ethiopian attempt to crush al-Shabab and other Islamist factions in Somalia in 2006 ended more than two years later with Ethiopia’s withdrawing after a bloody occupation that seemed to only embolden al-Shabab.

From the moment the first Kenyan soldier crossed the border, there were obvious questions over strategy. Though Kenya has not released a figure for the number of its troops in Somalia, anecdotal reports suggest less than 2,000, which would mean they are outnumbered from the start by al-Shabab, whose strength is estimated at 2,500 men. The attack seems likely to strengthen al-Shabab and bolster its local support, just at a time when the group was splintering and losing popularity. Kenya has invaded during the rainy season, when much of southern Somalia turns into a marsh. And Kenya is experiencing blowback inside its own borders: since the invasion, there have been two grenade attacks in Nairobi, which killed one and injured several, and an attack on a government car near the Somali border, in which all four passengers died.

(MORE: Will We Really Let 750,000 People Starve to Death?)

Most tragically, aid groups have warned that the invasion will only further disrupt efforts to reach the 3 million or so people in southern Somalia who are at risk of starvation amid the world’s worst famine. That operation is woefully insufficient, and tens of thousands of people have already died because of restrictions placed on aid by both al-Shabab, some of whose members reject Western help, and the U.S., the world’s biggest donor of food aid, which bars aid groups from using its donations in a way that might benefit al-Shabab.

Despite all these concerns, however, there is increasing evidence that Kenya did indeed act hastily. The U.S. ambassador to Nairobi, representing Kenya’s ally and significant military funder, has said he was unaware of the attack until after it started. The Somali President said Kenya did not seek Mogadishu’s permission to enter Somali territory — and he added, for good measure, that Kenya was not welcome. Finally, on Saturday the commander of the Kenyan army, General Julius Karangi, appeared to confirm that Kenya’s action had not been well planned. While predicting that Kenya’s operation would be lengthy, he said the time lapse between the decision to invade and the action itself was all of 12 days. “Some people mentioned that this entire operation was pre-planned, [that] it had been on the table for many, many months and years,” he said. “The answer is no. We acted as a country on the spur of the moment.” Which begs a horrifying question. Can it be that the Jilib refugee camp was bombed on impulse too?