Uganda: training to fight Al Shabaab

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Editor's note: The bombings that killed more than 70 people in Kampala Sunday have drawn attention to Uganda's involvement with the African Union force fighting the Al Shabaab militia in Somalia. Al Shabaab, an ally of Al Qaeda, vowed to continue its terror strikes against Uganda and other African countries that support Somalia's transitional government.

Here is an inside account of how Uganda is hosting a camp where European Union advisers are training Somali soldiers in ways to combat Al Shabaab.

BIHANGA, Uganda — With the setting sun gleaming on the barrels of their AK-47s, the line of Somali recruits belts out a rousing rendition of their national anthem.

When it’s over they punch the air with a cry of “Soomaliya Ha Noolaato!” or “Long live Somalia,” followed quickly by “European Union Ha Noolaato!” and finally “Africa Ha Noolaato!”

The EU has earned this display of affection by setting up a training scheme for 2,000 Somali soldiers loyal to the embattled Mogadishu government in this remote military base in southwestern Uganda.

Colonel Ricardo Gonzalez Elul, Spanish commander of the 120-strong European training mission, said the aim is to create the “backbone” of a new model army that could eventually push back the jihadist militias of Al Shabaab which now control much of Somalia and keep the Western-backed government cooped up in an enclave of the capital city.

The EU launched the mission in April as a supplement to the international naval operation against Somali pirates harassing international shipping in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.

However, EU officials acknowledge the newly trained troops will be used first by the Transitional Federal Government as it tries to break the siege led by the Al Qaeda-allied Al Shabaab militia.

“Mogadishu (is) where they really need the assistance and the help to fight against the Al Shabaab,” Elul said in an interview at his headquarters in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

“They are mainly focused right now on trying to gain control of Mogadishu ... The international community has to play a paramount role in trying to solve the problem by helping the federal government.”

More coverage of Al Shabaab:

Al Shabaab, ally of Al Qaeda

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Somalia: Is there a solution?

Western nations view Somalia’s chaotic civil war between shifting coalitions of militias as a quagmire too far for their own troops, so an African Union force led by Uganda is protecting the government district in Mogadishu. Uganda has also taken a lead in training pro-government soldiers, but the EU believes it can add value with a mission focused on specialized training for officers and NCOs. Training in Somalia is judged too dangerous for European troops, so Uganda agreed to host the mission.

The notion that soldiers from peaceful Portugal, Finland or Hungary can improve the fighting ability of troops whose combat skills have been sharpened by 19 years of civil war has been met with some skepticism. However the Somalis being put through their paces in Uganda say they can see the benefits.

“This European Union training is better than any we’ve had before,” said Mosa Ali-Ulusow, 35, a teacher who joined the government forces in 2007.

“Al Shabaab are not anything and if enough Somalis get this sort of training, the government will capture the country,” he said after an afternoon of instruction from a pair of Swedish instructors.
“We’re learning about firing positions, telecommunications and tactics, but also about human rights and how to resolve problems in society. That’s also important.”

There are now 912 Somali troops billeted in the Ugandan army camp in Bihanga that once served as a British colonial prison. A second intake of about 1,000 is due to take their place in December for another six-month program.

The numbers may be small but experts believe that they could make a difference, especially if the training in military techniques is matched by the anthem singing, flag saluting and history lessons designed to build up a spirit of patriotism among young Somalis who have known little but lawlessness and civil war.

“Al-Shabaab does not have massive numbers but they have been able to control all of south-central Somalia largely because they are extremely disciplined and they are highly motivated,” said Rachid Abdi, Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“The Transitional Federal Government needs to mimic that, they need to build a small, highly trained and highly motivated force and I think that may do the trick,” Abdi said in a telephone interview from Nairobi, Kenya.

“This is a generation that does not know anything about loyalty to a state or to even a higher cause … you need to imbue them with that spirit, so they are fighting for a flag, they are fighting for a nation and they are fighting against extremism.”

There is growing international concern that a defeat for the Transitional Federal Government could turn Somalia into a major base for international terrorism. The United States is backing the EU mission, providing transport to Uganda for the Somalis, equipping them with uniforms and ensuring they are paid during the six-month training courses. Washington is also backing a scheme to ensure the Somali soldiers receive regular wages once they return to Mogadishu in a bid to deter them from defecting.

Somalia’s complex internal politics have caused problems for the mission. Elul said that 250 soldiers from the autonomous region of Puntland pulled out before the start of the mission after authorities in the pirate-infested coastal state demanded that they, rather than the government in Mogadishu, decide where they would be deployed back in Somalia. In the early days of the mission, about 10 “troublemakers” were also sent home for stirring up rivalries between soldiers from different clans, Elul said.

A month into the training, however, EU instructors on the ground said the atmosphere among the recruits is good.

“They never give us any discipline problems,” said Capt. Donal Burke from the Irish Defense Forces. “All they want to do is get back and use their skills that they have and defend their country, defend the government.”