By Elise Labott
Somalia's problems are many. Terrorism, lawlessness and piracy. A famine that led to a burgeoning refugee problem. And a weak central government whose mandate expires later this year.
Representatives from close to 50 countries and international organizations will gather Thursday in London for a conference on how to stabilize and rebuild Somalia after decades of war. The session aims to galvanize the international community to develop a more comprehensive approach to tackling these ills.
The meeting comes as the United Nations Security Council Wednesday voted to increase the African Union force in Somalia from about 12,000 to close to 18,000 troops. The U.N. resolution also called for a ban on the imports and exports of charcoal, a significant revenue source for the Islamic militant group Al-Shabab, which the Security Council argued has magnified the humanitarian crisis in the country
The increased troop numbers will naturally come with a higher price tag. Having already funded one third of the mission to the tune of $385 million, the United States wants other nations to pick up the slack, including countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which have boosted ties with Somalia in recent years.
Al-Shabab has been waging an insurgency against the Transitional Federal Government since 2007. The militants have been significantly weakened over the past 18 months as the UN mission, along with Kenyan troops have pushed the group out of the capital Mogadishu.
But the group,which has formally joined al Qaeda, still remains a threat in the south central part of the country. The international community hopes the beefed up force will create fragmentation and further degrade the group, creating space for a political solution.
That's no short order. Established in 2004, Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is weak and needs significant capacity building to consolidate the country's security gains with political ones. The international community wants the TFG to meet a timeline for establishing a new government, including appointing a constitutional assembly and writing a constitution, before August when its mandate expires.
The TFG also needs to undertake development projects on its own and start doing what people expect of their governments: create jobs, build schools and provide services like healthcare.
Spoliers of the political process, members of the TFG who are blocking political progress, could start paying a price. Thursday's session is expected to gain support for sanctions, such as travel bans, against those in Somalia who undermine a political solution.
What to do about piracy in the Indian Ocean will also be a major topic on the agenda. Britain has offered to fund the creation of piracy intelligence and prosecution center in the Seychelles, which will help build cases against pirates caught on the high seas. Countries whose vessels were attacked will then be encouraged to try pirates in courts at home.
The competing agendas of the conference participants demonstrate the need for, but may complicate the goal of, developing a coordinated international approach.
The crisis in Somalia has drawn in many African countries. Neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia have both sent troops directly, while Uganda, Djibouti and Burundi are contributing peacekeepers. The United States has imposed sanctions against Eritrea for its support of Al-Shabab.
The United States, which has used drones to target militants in Somalia, and European nations see Somalia as one of the key terrorist threats in the world today
Muslim countries like Turkey, which is rapidly increasing its presence in the country and is holding a donors conference on Somalia for later this year, and Gulf nations like the U.A.E. and Qatar are also eager to play a role. Many are concerned about Qatar's interest negotiations with Al-Shabab.
Senior U.S. officials say such talks are not in the offing, for now. But some suggest more intelligence is needed on the group itself to see if there are moderates that can be pulled away from al Qaeda and toward a political process that protects Somalia's future.