Since 2007, the U.S. government has contributed about $550 million to train, equip and subsidize the African Union troops in Somalia. The European Union and the United Nations are the other major donors.
Washington is relying on proxy forces because Somalia has been essentially off-limits to U.S. ground troops since 1993, when Somali fighters shot down two military helicopters and killed 18 Americans in the “Black Hawk Down” debacle.
Thanks to an influx of U.S. aid and equipment, the Ugandan military has been willing to step into the breach. Ugandan officials have pledged to increase their forces in Somalia to 8,000 troops, the largest foreign contingent (Kenya and Burundi are the other major players, each contributing about 4,500 troops).
U.S. officials praised the Ugandans’ performance and military skills.
“They’re a very professional army,” said Maj. Albert Conley, deputy chief of the office of security cooperation for the U.S. military in Uganda. “I’ve never had a discussion on Clausewitzian theory with an African military officer before, but I have here.”
Ugandan military officials said they have had no trouble finding recruits willing to go to Somalia, despite the dangers. “It has stepped up our credibility in the region, and any soldier would be very proud to be part of the mission,” said Col. J.B. Ruhesi, the Ugandan commander of the Singo training camp.
Financial incentives also play a major role. The African Union pays troops about $1,000 a month to serve in Somalia — quintuple the usual salaries for many enlisted Ugandan soldiers.
Ugandan military officials said about 80 of their troops have been killed in Somalia since 2007, although analysts suspect the number of casualties has been far higher.
A leading cause of death for the African Union troops in Somalia has been homemade bombs — al-Shabab’s weapon of choice. U.S. trainers said they recently upgraded their course of instruction to help recruits learn how to avoid the explosives.
To that end, the Defense Department recently sent about 20 Marines to the Singo training camp to provide specialized instruction in combat medicine and bomb detection. Although the Marines have never fought in Somalia, they have years of experience dealing with homemade bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan
“When it comes to IEDs, there’s really nothing new under the sun,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Neal Fischer, referring to improvised explosive devices, the military’s term for rudimentary bombs.
Fischer acknowledged that many of the Ugandan recruits are “raw” but said they were fast learners.
“We’re looking to enhance their mobility in the field,” he said. “They’re here to learn this skill set so they can go back to Somalia.”