The West is at a collective loss over dealing with the Islamist militia, so Nairobi's bid to tackle this African problem should be applauded.

Kenya's military intervention in southern Somalia marks an important and hazardous moment for African peacekeeping. It will boost the beleaguered Somali government, at least in the short term, and may bring limited relief to the famished local population. But despite their superior firepower, Kenya's armed forces may struggle, like the Ethiopians and Ugandans before them, to decisively defeat the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab Islamist militia whose depredations prompted the incursion.

Home to largest refugee camp

Nairobi's decision to send in its troops is not altruistic. For Kenya and other neighbours, not least fragile Yemen, Somalia has become a vortex of instability, suffering and terror that radiates outwards to affect those within its orbit, even hundreds of miles out to sea. There have been cross-border operations before. But this ground intervention is on a grander scale, similar in some respects to Ethiopia's in 2006. It's a wonder it did not come sooner. Kenya has become home to the world's biggest refugee camp, at Dadaab, where 460,000 Somalis have sought shelter. Kenya's $750m-a-year tourist industry has suffered a sudden, catastrophic decline since al-Shabab shifted its focus south and turned its guns on western visitors and aid workers.

The idea that al-Shabab has deliberately sought to widen the conflict is probably mistaken. More likely it is the result of weakness and fracturing control within the militia. Al-Shabab forces largely pulled out of Mogadishu in August. They said it was tactical but it was more likely the product of pressure from Somali government troops and the U.N.- and African Union-backed peacekeeping mission, Amisom, plus growing public hostility. A random suicide bombing on October 4 that killed dozens in Mogadishu suggested al-Shabab had again declared war on the capital. Tougher international enforcement action to curb piracy may have contributed to forcing it on to the back foot. It has also reportedly been weakened by internal disputes, not least on how to manage the famine ravaging the Somali regions under its control.

Issue of Somali support

Having taken the plunge, the Kenyan government is not expected to try to occupy swaths of southern Somalia indefinitely. Experts suggest instead that Nairobi will seek to support Somali government forces and arm local militia antipathetic to al-Shabab. There has been talk in the past of creating a buffer zone. But the risk remains that the Kenyans get bogged down in hostile territory, a fate that has befallen better-trained armies than theirs. All the same, Kenya's decision to step in is a brave one that should be supported by western powers. Like charity, effective peacekeeping begins at home. African countries that step up to tackle an African problem, rather than sitting back and complaining when the West tries to do it for them, are to be applauded. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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