KAKOLA, Uganda -- American military advisers in Uganda are drawing on lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan to help train African Union soldiers to fight Somalia's most powerful insurgent group, al-Shabab.
Earlier this year, a small contingent of U.S. Marines joined American military contractors at a training base nestled in Uganda's rolling countryside about 2 1/2 hours drive from the capital, helping fill gaps where the al-Qaida-linked fighters have found weaknesses. The base, called Singo, was built by the U.S. and is a key part of the Obama administration's strategy to bring stability to Somalia.
The United States has sent in only small units of Special Forces to attack al-Qaida members in Somalia or hostage-taking pirates since U.S. troops withdrew from the nation in 1994, while other African countries have deployed thousands of troops to bring order to a country plagued by lawlessness, insurgents and hunger.
Many of the American trainers give firsthand knowledge of what works and what doesn't from years of learning to deal with improvised explosives, fighting insurgents in cities and other experiences from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Al-Shabab militants recently figured out how to take out AU tanks with the help of makeshift obstacles and traps, so a group of about 20 Marine reservists is now in the middle of a 10-week program teaching Ugandan forces combat engineering skills, like ways to quickly bridge trenches to permit the tanks to pass.
On a recent day at the base, three U.S. military medical specialists showed how to properly apply a tourniquet in a combat situation and other medical skills. The State Department's training program also includes marksmanship, urban warfare and explosives handling.
"We've been experiencing some really ugly things for the past 10 years, so we're taking that experience over here," said Maj. Mark Haley, 41, from Knoxville, Tennessee. "We're giving these guys some real important skill sets to keep them alive when they get sent over there."
Inside the base is a training area known as "Lil' Mogadishu" or the "Tin Village" – stacks of shipping containers making up a small "town" built by U.S. and British trainers for the Ugandan soldiers to practice house-to-house fighting. Soldiers move in and out of doors cut into the containers – which have been garishly spray painted with violent or provocative slogans like "death is here," "war only" and "we hate the AU" – and practice maneuvers along dirt streets and paths.
"This has taken us a long way, especially in achieving the operations in Mogadishu," said Singo's Ugandan commander, Col. J.B. Ruhesi.
About 3,500 Ugandan troops are currently undergoing training at Singo under the State Department's Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program, which also trains soldiers from Burundi and several other African nations. The training should allow the soldiers from different countries to operate with each other more smoothly after they're deployed to Somalia. The contractors have been training African Union forces since 2007.
Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the African Union mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, said Ugandan forces there currently number about 6,000 and make up the largest contingent.
Virginia-based MPRI has the current contract to conduct the program at Singo, and up to two dozen trainers work along with French, British and Ugandan military personnel. The contractors were not permitted to speak on the record to reporters during a recent media visit to the base, but one said all are ex-military and most have had experience in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
U.S. funding for the program is expected to be $3.8 million this year for the training, with another $300,000 for the non-lethal equipment that will be given to the Ugandan forces – things like body armor, helmets and mine detectors.
Ugandan forces commander Gen. Aronda Nyakairima said the urban warfare exercises have proved invaluable for soldiers to meet "fresh challenges" when they're deployed to Somalia. Despite the danger, he said the soldiers have been eager to participate in the AU peacekeeping mission.
The average soldier can make several times his normal salary by serving with the AU – which pays about $1,000 per month.
Somalia has been mired in conflict since the 1991, when long-term dictator Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords who then turned on each other. Al-Shabab has had a grip on much of south-central Somalia for the last several years but security in Mogadishu has improved markedly over the past year after AU and Somali government troops pushed al-Shabab insurgents out of the capital.
The militant group has also been facing increasing military pressure from Ethiopian troops in the west and Kenyan troops in the south.