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Back in 2007, the first Ugandan troops to arrive barely had enough food. Soldiers actually died of scurvy.

An army of bush fighters had been dropped into the most dangerous kind of urban terrain. It lacked – and still lacks – the attack helicopters essential to fighting such a war.

Many ingredients went into making AMISOM a credible force: U.S. money, equipment and training; U.N. logistical support, food, housing and an international mandate; training in how to avoid or respond to civilian casualties, an important hearts-and-minds investment.

Another advantage: The invading soldiers, like the Somalis, were black Africans and therefore a more acceptable foreign presence. They were not the first African force policing Somalia – an Ethiopian contingent had been deployed three months before the Ugandans arrived.

But Ethiopia, unlike Uganda, moved in with a heavy hand and a poor reputation.

Among the most important factors in AMISOM’s success were a high tolerance for casualties, and the incentive of salaries of $1,028 per month, paid for by the European Union – 10 to 20 times the average incomes in Uganda and Burundi.

AMISOM troops

AMISOM and participating governments refuse to release death tolls. The topic is too politically sensitive back in home capitals.

But two Western officials who work on Somalia issues and who were not allowed to be identified told The Associated Press that some 500 Ugandans and Burundians have been killed, plus an unknown number of Kenyans who joined AMISOM over the last year.

That may seem much less than American losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, but proportionate to their troop levels they are high. AMISOM troop levels only recently reached their current peak of 17,000.

Somalia was the worst situation in the whole world. Somalia was hell on earth, and now it has been turned around. The Somalis now have got hope. So when you ask about the casualties we have taken, I tell you that it was worth it,” said Ugandan Gen. Nathan Mugisha, who commanded AMISOM from 2009 to 2011.

AMISOM did not fight in Somalia’s pirate-infested region, but with al-Shabab on the run, the government may be able to begin tackling the on-land problems that produced pirates at sea.

Having survived the attack on the welcoming ceremony unscathed, the Ugandan force, then numbering 1,500, soon went to work.

It suffered its first fatality in late April, and a week later drove into Mogadishu’s Bakara market, with its notorious weapons section called Cirtoogte, meaning “sky shooter,” because buyers would test-fire weapons into the air.

It was the first time a foreign military had entered the market in the 15 years since the U.S. forces came and went.

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