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Somalian President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed has criticized the cross-border intervention by Kenyan troops last week in pursuit of Al-Shabab forces accused of kidnapping foreigners and taking them back to Somalia.
He would have been wiser to say nothing on the matter. His government may be internationally recognized but it is a government largely in name only. It has next to no control over what happens outside the capital Mogadishu, certainly not in the south of the country. His criticism, therefore, does little to impress. It conveys the unfortunate impression that he has a limited grasp of politics, let alone reality.
What does he expect the Kenyans to do? Sit by and watch Al-Shabab militants continue to kidnap foreigners and, in doing so, devastate Kenya’s vital tourist industry? To say that they should look after their borders better is cheap and dishonest. It is a very porous border, impossible to police — and the problem is in Somalia, not Kenya.
Ahmed’s comments would have been supported if Somalia were a stable state with a government fully in control of the country. It is not. In the circumstance, what the Kenyans did cannot be faulted. They have a responsibility to defend their country. In this case that means going after the criminals across the border.
Kenyan is not the only country faced with the thorny issues of cross-border intervention and national sovereignty. Turkey has once again felt obliged to attack Kurdish PKK militants hiding in northern Iraq. It has just been engaged in its biggest cross- border operation in decades following the PKK’s attack last week in which 25 Turkish troops were killed. Like the Kenyans, it cannot sit back and do nothing. The PKK crosses the border because there is no effective government on Iraq’s side to stop it. Turkey has to do the same to defend itself. No country does this willingly or happily. Kenya and Turkey are as jealous as any other country about their sovereignty and are normally totally supportive of the concept. But sovereignty is not absolute. It depends on the ability of a state to maintain and defend that sovereignty. If, for example, Mexico sent troops across the Rio Grande to attack and arrest terrorist drug barons operating out of Texas, the US would rightly see that as an assault on its sovereignty and an act of war. But it would be a different matter if all government collapsed in the US and terrorists there were able to operate against Mexico with impunity.
Such circumstances are, fortunately, so unlikely as to be impossible. But that does not make the theory an abstract one.
What happens, for example, if Yemen slides down the route of Somalia and becomes a base for hit-and-run operations by Al-Qaeda against its neighbors? The country is already a fractured state. In such circumstances affected states would have to take appropriate action to defend themselves and their citizens.
For sovereignty to exist there has to be an authority in place that can exercise it. It does not exist in Somalia, or in the border region of northern Iraq. The way things are going in Yemen, we fear it may soon not be there either.