From El Adde to Kulbiyow
We can all agree that Al Shabaab assaulted the AMISOM Base at Kulbiyow on Friday, 27 January 2017; the attack on the KDF troops deployed to the camp began with suiciders driving two Vehicles Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) into and through the main entry point into the long established defensive position located less than 20kms from the Kenya Border in southeastern Somalia.
In fact much of this area was notionally controlled by the Ras Kamboni Brigade and invading KDF troops in October 2011 quickly displaced any Al Shabaab elements; that was over five years ago. Beyond the date and time of the assault and the identity of the attackers (e.g. Al Shabaab) nothing else seems certain.
Accounts published in two major newspapers describe very different battles; casualty figures whether of KDF dead and/or wounded or the number of Al Shabaab confirmed killed in action vary widely and not merely because of sources of statistics.
Official GOK/KDF reports indicate that Kulbiyow was completely retaken no later than 1200 from Al Shabaab terrorists who had penetrated the base with KDF aviation assets arriving on station within six hours of the initial assaults; other accounts were of gun battles continuing late into Friday afternoon.
Coming just after the first anniversary of the successful Al Shabaab attack on El Adde on 15 January 2016, the Kulbiyow Assault highlights previously recognized KDF tactical and operational deficiencies which have simply gotten much worse over time:
Lack of aggressive nighttime patrolling outside of the camp perimeter; although this may be a consequence of assigning only one rifle company to Kulbiyow there is no excuse for not putting out Listening Posts, not firing Harassment & Interdiction missions to disrupt Al Shabaab concentrations, not setting out “booby traps” and not actively implementing time honored defensive measures to ensure that Al Shabaab cannot develop timely or accurate diagrams of the camp’s features (i.e. communications centre(s), primary and supplementary defensive positions, locations of mortars and firing positions for crew served weapons, soldiers’ living spaces/communal areas, fuel storage sites, etc); at all times measures needed to be taken either to avoid camp routines or to deny knowledge of such routines to Al Shabaab.
– KDF troops within the Kulbiyow Camp had not rehearsed actions to be taken in the event of an assault by Al Shabaab; official accounts indicate that half of the rifle company withdrew in “good order” from the base rather than defending from existing preplanned positions. Despite suggestions that 81mm Mortars and 105mm Howitzers were employed during the seven (?) hour battle, there is no indication that KDF commanders had any preplanned fire support missions laid on for just this sort of eventuality.
– It seems that as with El Adde the camp’s military communications were quickly put out of action by Al Shabaab thereby denying KDF commanders on the ground inside Kulbiyow or even at nearby camps as well as at higher headquarters any ability to communicate fire support requests, up to date situation reports or even make queries concerning whether assistance was required; access to mobile telephone networks is just unsatisfactory!
– Although there has been mention of Quick Reaction Forces being in place – no doubt an improvement over El Adde – the efficacy and timeliness of those reinforcements was hindered by Al Shabaab’s use of foreseeable delaying tactics, such as setting ambushes and laying landmines and IEDs. Reinforcement solely by road under these conditions is too little too late. The KDF needs to be able to relieve its defenders using helicopters.
– Close Air Support (CAS) whether by fixed wing or rotary aircraft is the real game changer when an infantry unit and its attachments are under attack by a determined enemy; there is no evidence that CAS was included in the Commanders’ planning for defense of Kulbiyow.
Unhappily this is not an exhaustive list of what went wrong; there are no quick fixes when failures of this sort have become a systemic problem. All is not lost nor hopeless if the KDF leadership is willing to accept the need to go “back to basics” and actually looks for assistance from foreign allies and “experts” already on the scene.