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Effectiveness of US airstrikes in Somalia questioned by AFRICOM commander

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of United States Africa Command, addresses distinguished guests and service members for Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, June 14, 2018. Waldhauser presided over the change of command for CJTF-HOA from U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William Zana to Brig. Gen. James Craig. (Master Sgt. Sarah Mattison/U.S. Air National Guard)

The U.S. military’s airstrike campaign in Somalia won’t be enough to defeat Islamic militants in the country, where indigenous forces need to “step up” the fight, the commander for U.S. Africa Command said Thursday.

“At the end of the day, these strikes aren’t going to defeat al-Shabab,” AFRICOM’s Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

AFRICOM has picked up the pace of its airstrikes in the country, going from 35 in 2017 to 47 last year. The strikes are “causing problems” for al-Shabab, but Somalia’s own military needs to grow in size and effectiveness to counter the militant group, Waldhauser said.

Still, the Marine general conceded it was “an open question” about how much the strikes are deterring al-Shabab aggression.

While Somalia has been AFRICOM’s main operational focus in recent years, the command also is turning its attention to Chinese and Russian involvement on the continent. The United States is expected to scale back some of its counterterrorism programs in Africa, where the Pentagon plans to cut force levels by about 10 percent in the coming years. At the same time, the United States recently announced a shift in strategy in Africa that puts more focus on “great power competition in Africa and beyond.”

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Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., questioned whether AFRICOM has sufficient resources to carry on a mission of countering terrorism and Beijing and Moscow’s growing clout “with limited funds, equipment, and people.” One challenge is resources are getting diverted to the Indo-Pacific Command and European Command, where missions have grown, Reed said.

Waldhauser concurred his command was under-resourced, particularly in the area of intelligence and surveillance capabilities and medical evacuation assets.

In Africa, Russia has become more active as an arms supplier to various countries and provider of military training, all with an eye on getting involved in mineral extraction, Waldhauser said.

“They (Russia) want to have influence on the continent,” he said.

China already has significant influence in Africa, where Beijing now operates a military base seven miles away from the U.S.’s main operational hub in Djibouti, Waldhauser said. China’s investment in infrastructure and ports throughout Africa has raised concerns that it could eventually take control of Djibouti’s main port that is a logistics linchpin for the U.S. military. Such a move could potentially hobble U.S. missions across east Africa, Waldhauser said.

“We need unimpeded access (to the port),” he said.

While Djiboutian officials have offered assurances that it will retain control and won’t sell off to China, “the bottom line is it still remains a concern,” Waldhauser said.

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

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