The shadowy U.S. air war against al Shabab militants in Somalia has set back the al Qaeda-aligned terrorist group but will not alone defeat it, the American general who heads U.S. Africa Command told Congress Thursday.
Since April 2017, the United States has conducted a methodical campaign of attrition, picking off groups of al Shabab fighters with drone strikes whenever they present a target of opportunity.
In 2018, U.S. Africa Command assessed that it killed 323 al Shabab members in almost 50 airstrikes. Just five weeks into 2019, AFRICOM says 118 militants have been killed in a dozen strikes.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, outgoing U.S. Africa commander Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said the goal of the strikes is to help the fledgling government of Somalia gain control of its country.
“At the end of the day these strikes are not going to defeat al Shabab, but they are going to provide the opportunity for the federal government and the Somali National Army to grow and assume the security of that country,” said Waldhauser.
The United States has some 500 special operation forces in the country supporting the Somali military and the U.N.-backed African Union Mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM. Other countries including Great Britain, Turkey, and the European Union are also aiding the AMISOM mission, but the United States is providing the airpower that has kept al Shabab off balance.
“We know that [the airstrikes] are causing problems, we know that they are deterring. It is an open question as to how much,” said Waldhauser. “But the bottom line is the Somali National Army needs to grow, it needs to step up, and it needs to take responsibility for their own security.”
Waldhauser says both he and newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Somalia Donald Yamamoto have underscored that point in meetings with Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo and prime minister Hassan Ali Khayre.