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Why Kenya’s status as a non-NATO ally is crucial for regional security

The designation of Kenya as a major non-NATO ally by the United States elevates its role in regional and international security as 1,000 of its police officers prepare to fight gangs in Haiti’s besieged capital, Port-au-Prince.

The announcement came as Kenyan President William Ruto embarked on a historic state visit to the United States to discuss with President Joe Biden the long-awaited deployment to the Caribbean nation and other bilateral issues.

Kenya becomes just the fourth African nation to achieve that status, and the first in sub-Saharan Africa, cementing Kenya’s status as one of the United States’ closest allies on the continent.

Washington pledged $200m (£157m) to Nairobi for the UN-backed mission in Haiti, building confidence in Kenya’s long history of supporting regional peace initiatives, with relative success.

Kenya is currently overseeing a peace deal that ended Ethiopia’s two-year civil war in the northern Tigray region. Ruto has also been mediating between countries in the Great Lakes region deeply divided by the chronic rebel insurgency in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Since 2011, the Kenyan military has been fighting the Islamist group al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia. A US military base located in Kenya’s coastal Lamu county has been the backbone of those counterinsurgency operations.

This reliability is crucial for the United States, which is being overshadowed by Russia and China, particularly in parts of West Africa, where Western forces have been forced to sharply reduce their presence.

What difference will it make?

As a non-NATO ally, Kenya will have privileged access to sophisticated military equipment, training and loans to increase defense spending.

However, the United States has no obligation to provide direct military assistance and Kenya has no mandate to send troops for NATO operations.

Despite the threat from al-Shabab, which has carried out several attacks against Kenya, its military spending has often been modest compared to that of its East African Community (EAC) neighbors.

Small-scale raids are common along the 680-kilometer (420-mile) border between Somalia and Kenya.

Al-Shabab has also claimed responsibility for a handful of high-profile, deadly attacks inside Kenya, including the 2013 raid on the Westgate shopping center in the capital Nairobi, where more than 70 people were killed.

Since the beginning of 2024, Al Shabab has claimed responsibility for around 30 attacks in Kenya, according to data collected by BBC Monitoring from the militant group’s media outlets.

These have been concentrated in the border counties of Lamu, Garissa, Wajir and Mandera. Most of the victims have been Kenyan security forces.

As African Union peacekeepers leave Somalia later this year, Kenya plans to increase its presence along the border.

The heightened security status could improve Kenya’s focus on intelligence gathering and strategic deployments.

Kenya’s involvement in eastern DRC was a test of the military strength of a regional force of EAC member states.

The deployment was considered a failure as troops abandoned less than nine months after entering the Central African nation and insurgents continued to gain momentum.

However, the United States has continued to use Kenya to influence efforts to mediate the conflict and resulting tensions.

While armed clashes are ruled out, President Ruto is expected to receive 16 US-made helicopters and 150 armored vehicles that could significantly boost a Kenyan-led mission.

haiti mission

While Kenya has vast experience in international peacekeeping, including during the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Haiti is uncharted territory.

Nearly 100 gangs have made Port-au-Prince their battleground following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021. The instability that forced more than 300,000 people from their homes ultimately forced Prime Minister Ariel Henry to resign this year.

As they seek territorial control, Haitian gangs have also engaged in an arms race. Most of their weapons are smuggled from the United States, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Colombia.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found earlier this year that the gangs are armed with Russian AK47s, American-made AR-15s and Israeli Galil assault rifles.

U.S. funding could allow Kenya’s chronically disadvantaged, underequipped and poorly trained police to gain access to rifles, armored vehicles and ammunition suitable for taking on gangs.

How have other African countries benefited from the designation?

Non-NATO ally status markedly improved the armies of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.

Tunisia’s military strength changed considerably once it gained status in 2015, coinciding with budgetary and operational reforms.

Egypt, which has one of the most reputable militaries in the world, has held that designation since 1989 as it formed the cornerstone of American diplomatic forays into North Africa and the Middle East.

Morocco has gained extensive experience in counterterrorism as militants from the Islamic State (IS) group seek to gain a foothold in parts of North Africa.

Since 2007, the kingdom has hosted the largest military exercise on the continent, called “African Lion.”

This year’s edition has 7,000 military personnel from 20 African and NATO states receiving tactical training.

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