KAKOLA, UGANDA — American military advisers in Uganda are drawing on lessons learned in 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 a 2 1/2-hour drive from the capital, helping fill gaps where the al Qaeda-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 U.S. has sent in only small units of Special Forces to attack al Qaeda members in Somalia or hostage-taking pirates since U.S. troops withdrew from the nation in 1994. Other African countries have deployed thousands of troops to bring order to a country beset 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 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, Tenn. "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 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.
MPRI, a training and security firm based in Virginia, 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 former military types 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 nonlethal equipment that will be given to the Ugandan forces - things like body armor, helmets and mine detectors.
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