US conducts airstrike in Somalia as its PM visits Washington
The US military conducted an airstrike in Somalia Tuesday that killed one Al-Shabaab militant, according to US Africa Command, which oversees military operations on the continent.
The strike occurred in the vicinity of Jilib, Middle Juba Region, an area that has in the past been a hotbed of Al-Shabaab activity.
News of the strike comes on the same day that Somalia's Prime Minister Hassan Khayre met with President Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton at the White House on Wednesday.
Khayre is seen as a key ally in the fight against the al Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabaab
"Pleased to have hosted Somali PM Khayre today. I congratulated him on Somalia's economic reforms and urged sustained engagement on this front. We discussed ways to deepen the strong US-Somalia partnership on critical issues, including counterterrorism and regional stability," Bolton wrote on Twitter Wednesday following their meeting.
American diplomats, military officers, and USAID officials tell CNN that they see progress in Somalia, with many of them citing increased security in major cities and reform efforts as examples of success, which has been bolstered by recent reform efforts made by the government.
A significant increase in strikes
There has been a significant increase in US airstrikes in Somalia since Trump authorized the military to carry out precision strikes targeting Al-Shabaab in March 2017. Prior to that, the US military was authorized to conduct airstrikes only in defense of advisers on the ground.
At least 253 fighters from the al Qaeda-affiliated group have been killed in 29 airstrikes so far in 2019, according to figures released by US Africa Command. In 2018, the US conducted 47 airstrikes targeting Al-Shabaab, killing about 337 militants. In 2017, the US carried out 35 airstrikes, and in 2016 it conducted 15.
The US military estimates that Al-Shabaab commands somewhere between 5,000 to 7,000 fighters and controls about 20% of Somalia's territory.
As part of an effort to bolster Somalia's government, the US has about 500 troops in Somalia where they primarily advise the Somali National Army as it carries out its counter-insurgency campaign against Al-Shabaab.
That effort includes a Navy SEAL-led unit comprised of US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel that is currently in Somalia working to advise Danab, a light infantry force tasked with clearing Al-Shabaab from towns and villages from the insurgency's strongholds in Somalia, thereby denying its ability to conscript recruits and tax the local population.
The US military took on responsibility for training and advising Danab in May of 2017.
Since October 2013, the US military has also operated a Military Coordination Cell in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, which is tasked with providing planning and advisory support to Somali security forces and the Africa Union mission in Somalia, AMISOM.
But despite the gains made by US-backed forces, Al-Shabaab has still been able to strike at the nation's capital, carrying out an attack last month that killed dozens.
The terror group has also carried out attacks on US allies in the region, including a January attack on a hotel complex in Nairobi, Kenya.
Criticism from Congress
The increase in airstrikes against Al-Shabaab has been criticized by some members of Congress and outside groups like Amnesty International, which has accused the US of killing civilians in Somalia.
While the US military has rejected Amnesty's allegations, Africa Command did recently announce that it had determined that one of its drone strikes had killed two civilians, the first ever such acknowledgment by the US military in Somalia.
"I think we need to rethink our Somalia strategy," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recently during confirmation hearings for Trump's nominee to become the next commander of Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend.
"As best I can tell the strategy in Somalia, as it is in so many of the countries that the US is bombing, is to keep killing terrorists and militants and hope that one day there are magically no more terrorists or militants to kill," Warren said.
But US military officers and diplomats stress that the airstrikes are only one component of the US military's overall campaign in Somalia which is aimed at bolstering the local government so that it can tackle Al-Shabaab on its own.
"In coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia's continued efforts to weaken al-Shabaab, U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in the vicinity of Jilib, Middle Juba Region, Somalia, on April 9, 2019... Continued pressure on the al-Shabaab network is critical to progress," US Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Gregg Olson, Africa Command's director of operations, said in a statement.
"Our assistance complements the Federal Government of Somalia's efforts to create stability and a better future for the Somali people," he added.