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Under the gaze of American instructors, gangly Ugandan recruits are taught to carry rifles, dodge roadside bombs and avoid shooting each other by accident.
In one obstacle course dubbed “Little Mogadishu,” the Ugandans learn the basics of urban warfare as they patrol a mock city block of tumble-down buildings and rusty shipping containers designed to resemble the battered and dangerous Somali capital.
“Death is Here! No One Leaves,” warns the fake graffiti, which, a little oddly, is spray-painted in English instead of Somali. “GUNS $ BOOMS,” reads another menacing tag.
Despite the warnings, the number of recruits graduating from this boot camp — built with U.S. taxpayer money and staffed by State Department contractors — has increased in recent months. The current class of 3,500 Ugandan soldiers, the biggest since the camp opened five years ago, is preparing to deploy to Somalia to join a growing international force composed entirely of African troops but largely financed by Washington.
After two decades of failed efforts, the U.S. government and its allies in East Africa say the interventionist strategy is slowly bolstering security in war-torn and famine-stricken Somalia, long considered the most ungovernable country in the world.
Ever since it plunged into chaos in the 1990s, Somalia has destabilized the region, serving as a hub for Islamic extremists and bands of pirates who plunder some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. American officials have long worried that al-Qaeda leaders will seek to rebuild their global operations in Somalia and nearby Yemen, across the narrow Gulf of Aden.
The U.S.-backed force, which is officially led by the African Union and endorsed by the United Nations, began operations in Somalia in 2007. For years, it struggled to fill its ranks, overcome a lack of equipment and win support among Somalis.
Since the fall, however, these troops have chased al-Shabab, the Somali militia affiliated with al-Qaeda, out of Mogadishu and solidified control of the capital. In February, the African Union announced plans to expand the size of the force from 12,000 to 18,000, and is preparing to deploy troops to southern and central Somalia for the first time.
About three-quarters of the force — mostly Ugandans, but also soldiers from Burundi, Djibouti and Sierra Leone — will have been trained by U.S. contractors hired by the State Department. U.S. military trainers are playing a supporting role, offering specialized instruction in combat medicine and bomb detection, among other subjects.
“At the end of the day, if you look at all of this and say, ‘Is it worth it?’ ” said Army Lt. Col. Luis Perozo, the defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, “and I would say, all you need to do is look at what’s going on in Mogadishu.”
The boot camp here, known as the Singo Training School, is operated by the Ugandan military, but the instruction is overseen by MPRI Inc., a subsidiary of L-3 Communications, based in Southeast Washington. It is one of four State Department contractors that are training African troops for Somalia.