Shabaab
Shabaab

The U.S. military says it launched two precision airstrikes against the al-Shabab terrorist group in Somalia this week, killing 15 militants.

A statement released Friday by U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, said the strikes took place Wednesday and Thursday in Somalia's Lower Shabelle region. Military officials say no civilians were killed.

Word of the strikes comes one day after former Somali defense minister General Abdulkadir Ali Dini said al-Shabab cannot be defeated through war alone. Dini said the army cannot defeat al-Shabab without the help of the Somali people and politicians.

"The military is doing its part. It keeps losing top generals and soldiers in the war against the militants, but they lack the actual support of Somali people and committed politicians," Dini said in an interview with VOA.

Dini was responding to a comment from a top U.S. military general who hinted that the continued U.S. air campaigns against al-Shabab were unlikely to yield much without support from the local army.

"At the end of the day, these strikes are not going to defeat al-Shabab," the U.S. military's Africa Command head, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington.

"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," he said.

FILE - U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser
FILE - U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser holds a news conference at Camp Lemonnier in Ambouli, Djibouti, April 23, 2017.

Since early 2017, the U.S. has increased the number of strikes it conducts in Somalia.

According to Somali military officials, the U.S. hit the militants about 35 times in 2017, compared to 47 times last year and about a dozen times so far this year.

In one strike last month, Africa Command said it killed 52 Somali militants.

In December, the U.S. military said it had killed 62 al-Shabab militants in six airstrikes in the Horn of Africa nation. Waldhauser questioned how effective the air campaign can be.

"We know that [the airstrikes] are causing problems; we know that they are deterring. It is an open question as to how much," he said.

Push for talks

Separately, Somali Security Minister Abdirizak Omar Mohamed said in an interview with VOA that fighting the militants, coupled with U.S. airstrikes, can never lead to the group's ultimate elimination. Al-Shabab has been fighting to overthrow the Somali government and impose a strict version of Sharia, or Islamic law.

"We know the group has long been spreading a poisonous ideology in the minds of the young, the mentally retarded and the susceptible Somalis. To effectively eliminate this would require the start of talks with the group's leaders," said Mohamed. "Only war cannot defeat al-Shabab."

As the security minister in the government of former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Mohamed was among top government officials and advisers who started unsuccessful behind-the-scenes talks with al-Shabab's leadership.

"During my time as security minister, I helped the start of talks with al-Shabab but my government left office while we were in the early stages of the communication with the group. Now, I think is the right time to resume," Mohamed said.

Mohamed says starting talks does not mean giving up the fight against the insurgents as long as they keep terrorizing and carrying out attacks, but that testing an approach of negotiating with them has always been possible.

"You know there are signs of progress and hope created by the recent peace talks between the United States and the Taliban. If that is possible, I think the current Somali government can set the stage for a negotiation with al-Shabab," Mohamed said, drawing a comparison to the Afghan Taliban.

The military front

More than 20,000 African troops under the African Union Mission (AMISOM) and thousands of Somali army and pro-government militias, supported by U.S. airstrikes, have been trying to remove thousands of al-Shabab fighters and assassins from Somalia, but all these efforts have not stopped the groups' threat in Somalia and beyond.

Last Monday, in a powerful car bomb explosion at a shopping mall in the capital, Mogadishu, the group killed at least 11 people, including a top military official.

The same day al-Shabab gunmen shot and killed the manager of a Dubai-owned port in Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland region.

Last month, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on the DusitD2 hotel and office complex in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, leaving at least 21 people dead. Al-Shabab has been linked to previous attacks in Kenya. Al-Shabab has targeted Kenya in retribution for Kenya sending troops to Somalia.