Top military bosses have failed soldiers

Exactly one year and 14 days ago, the country was plunged into mourning after terrorists breached the defence of our soldiers in El Adde, Somalia, and massacred at least 173 servicemen and officers. This was the worst attack on Kenyan military since independence and the country rightly rallied behind our gallant heroes because their loss was our loss, for we are all together in this war.

Implicit in this support was the tacit hope that the military top brass would learn from the massacre and come up with a secure way of crushing the threat posed by terrorists without endangering the lives of our soldiers. Indeed, many hoped that the blood of the young men killed in the line of duty, many of them barely into their mid-20s, would not be in vain. Then another massacre happened in Kolbiyow this Friday and it became apparent that we have been tilting at windmills.

Our problem is more than just an amoebic and virulent enemy, the Al Shabaab.

There is a problem in the military, and it sits right at the very top of the command. Two massacres in one year against a shadowy opponent is not an accident or bad luck.  It’s recklessness.  Losing more than 250 soldiers in 54 weeks in two identical attacks speaks not to the consequence of going to war but the utter incompetence of the high command. Among other critical weaknesses, it signals a leadership with little sense of history and, tragically, forecast.

Worse, it suggests that the generals and commanders in Nairobi are recklessly deploying young men to enemy territory without putting in place the requisite measures to secure them. Ultimately, it seems that the high command in Nairobi is more focused on ticking the political boxes of deploying soldiers in Somalia than their fundamental duty of ensuring the safety of soldiers and the country. This is worrying.

The country cannot be safe if its soldiers are routinely slaughtered in battles. The military represents more than just the country’s might and willingness to secure its borders. It is a symbol of stability, hope and — you said it— national pride. Yes, pride to protect the country but also pride that comes with the appreciation from the citizens and leaders for the personal sacrifices soldiers make.

Pride and the attendant appreciation are self-reinforcing catalysts. The massacres in Somalia are crippling this equilibrium.  This is why we believe together with the political leadership, the top military brass owes Kenyans an apology for the cock-up that is fighting terrorists in Somalia. Better still, heads must roll.

Three East African countries — Kenya, Uganda and Burundi —have deployed their soldiers to Somalia. Burundi and Uganda went there first. They both suffered casualties on the battle ground, but unlike Kenya the terrorists did not humiliate them twice, using the same tactics. Uganda and Burundi learnt from the attacks and built fortresses around their soldiers.

From the sketchy information available, it would appear that the Kolbiyow attack  was similar to the El Adde raid. Terrorists blasted their way into the military using vehicles loaded with explosives. Our soldiers were caught unawares and the militants took advantage of the ensuing chaos to overrun their defences.

How strong was the defence? What information, if any, came through our intelligence agencies, and what was the response of the top military command? Where was the reinforcement and how quickly were these stand-by units deployed? If past actions by the KDF are anything to go by, these questions will remain unanswered. Up till now, there are no official figures of the soldiers killed in the El Adde attack.

We acknowledge the personal cost and strain this war has visited on the soldiers and their generals. However, we are disappointed by the fatalistic attitude of the military and political leadership. Soldiers die in battle, but there is something horribly wrong when massacre becomes the inevitable outcome of every deployment.

Last year, Chief of the Defence Forces Samsom Mwathathe promised swift action to ensure safety of our soldiers. Not surprisingly, like the political elites are wont to do, these were empty words. Efforts to get any clarity of thought have been rebuffed by the signature response of  endangering “national security”.

Yet, there can never be a bigger threat to national security than a military command that appears to be insular to public concerns and welfare of its own soldiers. While the need for confidentiality cannot be denied, the military  top brass should not hide behind secrecy laws to shield themselves from scrutiny. This is especially so when the vulnerability of our soldiers is a result of  incompetence or negligence.