A major military exercise involving five East African nations and the United States is taking place in Uganda. The U.S. military says the exercise is part of on-going efforts by the United States and its regional allies to improve coordination and response to humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters.
More than 1,200 military personnel from the United States, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda are involved in the 10-day exercise that began Friday.
According to a spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, Dan La Pierre, the exercise, dubbed "Natural Fire 10," is focused on training that will enhance capabilities needed for humanitarian and civic assistance, disaster relief, and regional security.
"It will increase our understanding of each other's capability and proficiencies, enhancing our ability to operate together. It is an on-going program and it used to be run by EUCOM [European Command] before our command was stood up," he said.
In the rural district of Kitgum in northern Uganda, soldiers are reportedly taking part in medical, dental and engineering projects that not only test their ability to work together, but can assist the local community. Meanwhile, senior and mid-level military officers in the Ugandan capital Kampala and in neighboring Entebbe town are said to be taking part in simulations aimed at improving their ability to respond to disasters and other emergencies.
But the decision to hold most of the exercise in Kitgum has raised questions as to whether Natural Fire 10 is part of preparations for a renewed military effort against the Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army. For more than two decades, the group terrorized Kitgum residents and other communities in northern Uganda and elsewhere in the region, committing unspeakable atrocities.
Last December, the United States supported a military assault on the LRA by the armies of Uganda, Congo Kinshasa, and South Sudan. The aim was to capture or kill LRA's elusive leader Joseph Kony. But the offensive failed. Kony and his men subsequently launched a killing spree that left more than 1,000 people dead in eastern Congo.
Dan La Pierre acknowledges Natural Fire 10 has come under scrutiny. But he says the exercise has nothing to do with pursing the LRA or any other terrorist group in the region.
"We have had a lot of inquiries about that," he said. "And it does not have anything to do with why we are actually down there. Specifically, we are trying to build partnership capacity with the countries that we have engaged with. And that is the whole point of the exercise."
Since Africa Command was established last year, critics have argued the purpose of the command is to militarize American foreign policy on the continent. Africa Command officials say the command has a far softer approach, trying to boost security through greater cooperation and capacity-building activities with America's African partners.