MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) - The first Ugandan soldiers to fly into Somalia 5 1/2 years ago came under attack as soon as they arrived: Militants fired mortars at the new mission's welcome ceremony.
Today, backed by a sweeping multinational effort that includes $338 million in U.S. equipment, wages and training, the force of Ugandans, Burundians, Kenyans and Somalis that was deployed to take on the country's Islamic radicals can claim a degree of success that had initially seemed highly unlikely.
When the Ugandan spearhead arrived on March 6, 2007, Somalia had been in chaos for years, ruled by warlords and insurgents bent on creating an Islamic state. AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, was the most ambitious response since the failed 1990s U.S. intervention of Black-Hawk-Down infamy.
The militants called al-Shabab, who once controlled nearly all of Mogadishu, have been gone from the capital for more than a year, and last month AMISOM booted them out of their last urban stronghold, the port city of Kismayo.
"I think from a military and security perspective it has been a success. Absent AMISOM, al-Shabab would now be in control of Mogadishu. We would not be talking about a new (Somali) national government with a president from civil society in charge," said E.J. Hogendoorn, a Horn of Africa expert at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that tracks conflicts.
But if the specter of Somalia as al-Qaida's next Yemen has been averted, the challenge now is to achieve strong central government for an estimated 10 million Somalis. "What is necessary for the long term in Somalia," said Hogendoorn, "is some sort of political resolution to this conflict."
Somali militants are melting into the local populace and could be preparing a comeback, as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan after invading coalition forces made early claims of success. Al-Shabab still controls wide areas of south-central Somalia.
Their territory, however, is low-value countryside and shrinking, while Mogadishu and other urban areas are enjoying a long-awaited respite from Islamist radicalism.
Some may see AMISOM's success as reaffirming the blueprint of African boots on the ground, backed by U.S., European and U.N. money, as a possible model for the future on this troubled continent.
But Dr. J. Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C. think tank, echoes Hogendoorn's caution.
"It's a success for the military strategy, but a military strategy can only achieve military ends ... Victory is secured when Mogadishu faces up to its political crisis. The military can clear out a space but cannot fill a space. That requires civil society and a political solution," he said.
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 this kind of war.
Many ingredients went into making AMISOM a credible force: U.S. money, equipment and training; United Nations 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 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 Uganda's Gen. Nathan Mugisha, who commanded AMISOM from 2009 to 2011.