conflict prevention in kenya: a strategic imperative, and a fading opportunity

Writing in the early months of the Obama administration, Mike Abramowitz and Lawrence Woocher identified mass atrocities prevention as a national security priority for U.S. foreign policy:

Genocide’s negative consequences for the United States are increasingly plain. Mass violence destabilizes countries and entire regions, threatening to spread trafficking in drugs, arms, and persons, as well as infectious disease pandemics and youth radicalization. When prevention fails, the United States invariably foots much of the bill for post-atrocity relief and peacekeeping operations — to the tune of billions of dollars. And even as Washington is paying, America’s soft power is depleted when the world’s only superpower stands idle while innocents are systematically slaughtered.

While small arms trafficking, radicalization, and transnational public health crises occupy targeted, compartmentalized attention within the U.S. foreign policy community, the U.S. government rarely devotes game-changing resources to ameliorating tertiary concerns. As DNI Clapper’s annual threat assessment makes clear, U.S. foreign policy institutions devote many more resources, man-hours, and organizational attention to counterterrorism and WMD proliferation. With the exception of unique instances, conflict prevention advocates often lose the constant struggle for bureaucratic resources–while the Obama administration has made important strides in increasing the flexibility of U.S. institutions, inert processes still characterize decision-making in the intelligence, defense, and diplomatic communities. The non-prioritization of preparedness, crisis response, and preventive action throughout and within the “Interagency” continues to limit the effectiveness of U.S. responses to mass atrocities and regional instability in conflict-affected areas.

Enter Kenya. Since al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya has emerged as a valuable counterterrorism partner for the United States in East Africa. The Bush administration’s “war on terror” thrust the U.S.-Kenya strategic partnership into the fore, with the United States relying on Kenya to house the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command’s covert operations against al-Qaeda in the Horn of Africa. Kenya’s October invasion of southern Somalia, a stability operation against al-Shabaab, has given greater weight to U.S. support for Kenyan security, as well as the country’s political and economic stability; while the United States appears to have incorporated Kenya’s invasion into its Somalia strategy, Kenya has struggled to mitigate the political, economic, and security consequences of its anti-Shabaab operations, including a wave of bombings in Nairobi. In terms of strategic priorities, Kenya’s counterterrorism efforts in Somalia are a far stretch from, say, the tenuous U.S.-Pakistani relationship, given the wide projection disparity between Somali Shabaab and al-Qaeda insurgents, and their Central/South Asian counterparts. However, as AFRICOM’s influence on U.S. Africa policy mounts, Somalia will become an increasingly crucial theater for U.S. operations, thus deepening the importance of Kenya’s strategic partnership.

In the early months of  2008, as Kenya’s post-election crisis escalated, the international community mobilized an impressive preventive diplomacy effort, headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Recognizing the impact of the post-election crisis on its economic and military priorities in East Africa, the United States played an active supporting role in the AU-facilitated mediations, dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to pressure incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and popular opposition candidate Raila Odinga towards a political resolution. International mediation lasted for forty days, culminating in a thus-far-successful power-sharing agreement, as well as concrete planning for constitutional reform and a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation commission.

Despite the apparent success of 2008’s preventative efforts, the international community’s follow-through has been inconsistent. Gaps in post-conflict accountability, justice institution and land reform, and a sustainable resolution to Kenya’s internal displacement crisis form the structural foundation for acute violence in the midst of Kenya’s approaching political transition. Through USAID, the United States supports small-scale, programmatic attempts to address lapses in Kenyan governance, conflict resolution, and civil society participation. However, U.S. assistance has provided insufficient support to technical electoral preparations, IDP resettlement, and the implementation of constitutional reforms. Additionally, in contrast to the 2008 response, U.S. civilian agencies remain woefully unprepared for crisis stabilization in post-election Kenya: the Civilian Response Corps, the U.S. government’s sole crisis response mechanism, received a paltry $33 million in FY 2012 for “Overseas Contingency Operations.”

As friend-of-the-blog Ben Brockman wrote on the international community’s non-preparedness for the DRC’s 2011 elections, half-hearted, rhetorical support for democratic processes and institutions often creates tangible incentives for electoral fraud and violent opposition mobilization. Where the DRC was 2011’s sparkling case study of the negative consequences of international inertia, Kenya’s looming electoral crisis may be 2012’s. In the DRC, electoral failure has yielded few strategic consequences for the United States, with the exception of a tentative spillover effect. In Kenya, by contrast, the stakes for U.S. regional strategy in East Africa are much higher: while the Kenyan military’s newfound political influence has strengthened the country’s resolve, the potential combination of political instability, divided leadership, and deepening fiscal crisis will threaten the already-fragile political will for Kenya’s Somalia operation. Given the prominent overlap between political violence and electoral contestation in Kenyan democratization processes, U.S. investment in the country’s conflict prevention efforts should be a core component of the United States’ regional policy. The opportunity for effective change is closing quickly, with problematic consequences for U.S. priorities in East Africa.

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