5 January 2008


"The U.S. has in our view gone back to a Cold war paradigm where it supports any regime as long as it fights America's war on terrorism," said Maina Kiai, the head of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. "The result is that the Americans have leverage with Kibaki but credibility almost nowhere else within Kenya."

NAIROBI, Kenya _ Mary Wambui sat dazed with grief under a tree on the outskirts of this embattled African capital, her pauper's hut looted by a gang of thugs, her sister recovering from rape in a local hospital and all her worldly possessions stuffed into a plastic bucket salvaged from the ashes of Kenya's recent spasm of election violence.

"Americans won't care about this," Wambui, 18, said, pressing a fist to her mouth as if to still her quavering voice. "They will just say we are hopeless, like another Somalia."

Many Americans might indeed be tempted to dismiss the recent television images of Nairobi's bleeding slums and flaming roadblocks as just one more baffling example of Africa's flirtation with chaos.

But alarmed U.S. diplomats and analysts know better. The unprecedented political violence that has rocked this once orderly country, pitting the supporters of re-elected president Mwai Kibaki against an enraged opposition that claims the vote was rigged, threatens to upend years of carefully erected American foreign policy across a vast, strategic and deeply troubled swath of Africa.

Bound painfully to the United States by the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi by al-Qaida affiliates _ a terrorist attack that killed far more Kenyans than Americans _ Kenya has become many things to its Washington ally: an outpost of peace and economic stability in a impoverished and violent region; a logistical springboard from which to funnel billions in aid to nearly half the continent; and a quiet bulwark against the lawlessness of Africa's Horn, a tough neighborhood that security experts have begun calling the third major front in the war on terrorism, after Afghanistan and Iraq.

"This isn't an ordinary African political crisis," said Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign affairs think tank in Washington. "The stakes are pretty big for the U.S. If they lose Kenya, I'm not sure what the Plan B is."

Not that Kenya is doomed to anarchy yet.

On Friday the nation seemed dazed after five days of mayhem that saw homes and churches torched, untold numbers of women raped and upwards of 300 people slaughtered in political clashes that quickly devolved into grisly ethnic vendettas.

In Nairobi, a trickle of cars and rickety taxi vans began circulating on otherwise empty streets. A few shops cautiously yanked up their shutters. And hundreds of riot police patrolled the reawakening downtown.

Raila Odinga, the fiery opposition leader who says he won the Dec. 27 election, warned that a new vote must be scheduled within 90 days or Kenya would slide deeper into bedlam. A government spokesman shrugged off that suggestion as political "blackmail."

Foreign leaders and diplomats, meanwhile, were scrambling to keep the two leaders talking _ and Kenya from toppling over completely into a humanitarian as well as political catastrophe. Few delegations were pulling out more stops than the Americans.

"Kenya is an important counterterrorism partner," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, adding that Washington was working hard to help what is arguably America's closest African ally "get back on the nonviolent democratic path they had been on."

The stakes couldn't be higher. Indeed, they might surprise Americans who associate Kenya with fine coffee and benign wildlife safaris.

The United States relied on Kenyan airspace and armed border patrols a year ago when the Pentagon backed another regional ally, Ethiopia, in crushing a radical Islamist regime in neighboring Somalia. Kenya has acted also as a logistical corridor for a billion-dollar humanitarian aid effort, paid for largely by the U.S., in southern Sudan. And Kenyan intelligence agencies collaborate closely with U.S. counterparts in monitoring al-Qaeda infiltration into the unstable Horn region.

The alliance only deepened after al-Qaida operatives blew up an Israeli-owned hotel in the Kenyan seaside resort city of Mombasa in 2002.

Such pro-American stances have paid off handsomely for Kenya.

Total U.S. aid mushroomed more than tenfold over the past decade, from $29.5 million in 1997 to $390.5 million in 2006, the last year when government figures are available. Much of that largesse comes in the form of food donations and anti-AIDS funding. American military assistance, however, has grown apace. In the five years before 9-11, it amounted to $3 million; in the five years after the New York terror attack, it zoomed to $34.8 million.

Still, Washington's embrace of the Kibaki regime has caused some awkward and unexpected blowback in the current crisis.

The eruption of post-election violence appears to have caught U.S. diplomats flat-footed, political analysts in both countries say, because Washington is too cozy with Kenya's often corrupt ruling elite. An embarrassed State Department retracted a too-hasty congratulation to Kibaki after international poll monitors declared last week's vote-counting process deeply suspect.

"The U.S. has in our view gone back to a Cold war paradigm where it supports any regime as long as it fights America's war on terrorism," said Maina Kiai, the head of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. "The result is that the Americans have leverage with Kibaki but credibility almost nowhere else within Kenya."

The Nairobi-Washington alliance also has managed to alienate many of Kenya's minority Muslims.

Over the past year, Kibaki has been accused of permitting suspected Islamic extremists to be deported without trial to secret jails in authoritarian Ethiopia _ a local version of Washington's clandestine rendition program.

"Ninety percent of Muslims voted for the opposition in this election," said Said Athman, the director of Kenya's National Muslim Leaders Forum. "We feel that the current Kenyan government is a proxy of the United States. We view the U.S. as hostile towards us."

Yet the special relationship is likely to continue, unless Kenya utterly collapses.

"We have no other reliable, coherent partners in the region to contain trouble spots like Somalia and Sudan," said analyst Morrison. "Even if (opposition leader) Odinga eventually takes power, the U.S. will work with him."

Which may or may not be a comfort to Wambui, the young slum refugee and victim of electoral violence, who was camping rough under the trees.

Americans may not be particularly moved by her faraway miseries. But at least Washington is watching anxiously.


(Staff writer Bay Fang contributed to this report from Washington.)

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