Will the African Union help Somalia?

As African leaders met for the second and last day of the African Union (AU) Summit Tuesday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, there were many questions about unfinished business and what they have actually accomplished.

Chief among them is the shaky AU peacekeeping force planned for war-ravaged Somalia. While a few African countries – Uganda, Nigeria, and Malawi – have pledged 2,500 of the 8,000 requested troops, most remain silent.

South Africa, a regional power normally willing and able to send peacekeepers, gave a definite "no" this week, citing its own overstretched military, the lack of Western donor support, and the lack of a workable peace plan.

Its concerns underscore the stumbling blocks for the AU as a whole. And with multiple peacekeeping missions throughout the continent, the AU may be reaching the limits of its capacity to handle more conflicts.

"I get a sense that troop-contributing countries want a better understanding of the situation in [Somalia] before sending their troops," says Matt Bryden, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. Even if countries do soon commit to sending 8,000 troops, Mr. Bryden says that may not be enough. "With 8,000 peacekeepers, they'll be hard-pressed to provide airport and VIP protection, let alone protecting the cities," he says. "It's not realistic."

Top AU diplomat Alpha Konare chastised African countries Monday. "We cannot simply wait for others to do the work in our place," he said, warning of chaos in Somalia if peacekeepers aren't deployed soon.

In theory, the AU should behave like the European Union (EU), with common policies on trade, development, and defense. African nations should come to each other's aid, to help sort out conflicts, and to provide peacekeeping forces as needed by their fellow governments. But the AU already has missions in Ivory Coast, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few.

"I think it's like the electricity here, at some point the demand is greater than the supply, and it just runs out," says Tom Wheeler, a former South African ambassador, and now a research fellow at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg. "It's not an unwillingness on South Africa's part; we simply don't have people to send. I believe the US is also finding itself in that same situation."

As AU leaders at the summit scrambled Tuesday to convince member nations to send more troops, Somalia's President Abdullahi Yusuf agreed under intense pressure from the US, the EU, and the UN to start a reconciliation conference with all religious and clan leaders, including moderates among Somalia's Islamists, who were overthrown by Somalian and Ethiopian troops earlier this month.

Willingness to include moderate Islamist leaders in talks could pave the way to a peace plan that analysts say is key to getting African countries and Western donors to contribute enough troops and money for an effective peacekeeping force. The EU reacted to Mr. Yusuf's announcement by pledging to donate $20 million for the peacekeeping force.

Still, many experts believe that the mission will depend on how events unfold in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, Somalia's Islamists posted a videotape on their official Web site warning that any African peacekeepers would be seen as invaders, highlighting the dangers of the mission. But if Somalia's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) acts on its announcement to reach out and share power with a broad section of Somali society, then attacks on remaining Ethiopian troops may diminish.

"I think you may well see a staggered deployment, with limited numbers going in doing the most limited tasks, protecting the TFG, and providing escorts for VIPs," say Bryden. "A lot depends on what happens with the first group of peacekeepers. If they find themselves facing attacks the way the Ethiopians and TFG are, you're not going to see a lot of appetite for expansion."

As attacks on Ethiopian troops intensified this week, Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi announced that his country would withdraw one-third of its troops.

Mr. Zenawi said last week that Ethiopia had accomplished its mission, and now the future of Somalia rests in the hands of its new leaders and Western donors.

"The problem might be those who have resources may be reluctant to provide the necessary resources," he said. "If the international community chips in that is fine. If they don't it will be up to them," he added.

AU peacekeeping planners estimate that the AU will need $160 million for the first six months of its mission. Besides the EU announcement to contribute $20 million, the US has promised $40 million.

But, perhaps most important, the AU needs a peace plan to enforce, says Richard Cromwell, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane (as the South African capital city of Pretoria is now called.)

"There is no peace plan, and no political or diplomatic framework on which to hang a mission," says Mr. Cromwell. "If one looks at the context of the AU summit, it's nice to say you are going to send troops, but it's another thing to actually send them. Why would you devote rare African troops to a quagmire when you might need them for future conflicts?"

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