The request came after the AU Peace and Security Council endorsed a proposal by East African defence ministers and military leaders. The leaders met in Addis Ababa on Wednesday to discuss new strategies for defeating the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab movement and expanding the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) mandate beyond Mogadishu.
The Peace and Security Council urged the UN "to take advantage of the unique opportunity created by the operations being conducted against al-Shabaab in different parts of Somalia".
In addition to pressure from AMISOM and government forces in Mogadishu, the movement is facing military campaigns on fronts in the west and south of Somalia.
Ethiopia sent troops into western Somalia last week and helped liberate Beledweyne from al-Shabaab, while Kenya has been mounting a military campaign in the south since October, following a series of attacks and kidnappings inside Kenya attributed to al-Shabaab.
Monica Juma, Kenya's ambassador to the United Nations, announced the details of the troop increase proposal.
"The highlights were: the need to increase the AMISOM troops from 12,000 to 17,700, the need to fast track the creation of an administrative unit in the liberated areas," Juma said after presiding over a meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council in the Ethiopian capital.
She also highlighted the need for "logistical support in order to optimise the capability of the AMISOM troops", and to bolster the "capability of the TFG (Transitional Federal Government) and allied forces in order ... to begin to create a Somali security force."
TFG welcomes military strategy
The Transitional Federal Government in Somalia welcomed the new strategy to fight the extremist al-Shabaab group.
"The transitional government, in co-operation with neighbouring countries and with support from the international community, will commence a military campaign to restore peace and order in Somalia," Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said in a statement. "This will target extremist groups such as the al-Shabaab movement, which is affiliated with the global terrorist network led by al-Qaeda in Somalia."
"We officially call on neighbouring countries, the African Union and the international community in its entirety to help the Somali people and its government in this historic operation," he said.
Commander of the Somali National Army Gen. Abdul Karim Tgabidn Yusuf Adam, who is in charge of major operations to defeat al-Shabaab, said, "The on-going military operations to rid the country of terrorism brought on by the al-Shabaab movement have been gaining momentum. New fronts have been opened in the centre and to the south of the country, all supported by neighbouring countries to defeat terrorists."
"There will be parallel military operations from several fronts and the Somali armed forces will intensify their efforts and [broaden] their campaign against Islamist extremists. They will receive support from the African Union forces, as well as the Kenyan and Ethiopian forces," he said.
New strategy faces new challenges
Political analyst Ahmed Abdul Wahab warned that the execution of the new strategy to increase AMISOM forces to more than 17,700 might take a long time, as the African Union has been working since 2007 to round up a force of 12,000 soldiers and it is still short of this figure. "This renders the mechanism of executing this new plan ambiguous, since no other countries showed a willingness to send their troops to Somalia. For its part, Ethiopia refuses to join AMISOM," he told Sabahi.
The AMISOM currently comprises around 10,000 Djiboutian, Ugandan and Burundian soldiers -- 2,000 short of the 12,000 target. On Thursday, the AU approved the merger of Kenyan troops into AMISOM.
The African Union announced that Djibouti would be sending 5,700 soldiers to join AMISOM, up from 1,500 originally agreed. More troops would also come from Burundi and Uganda. No mention was made of 1,500 troops promised last year by Sierra Leone.
Hassan Abdullah, an analyst working on Horn of Africa affairs, said that past proposals by East African countries fell short of expectations. He referred to repeated calls made by East African countries to impose a no-fly zone over Somalia.
"The African Union and IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) have for several years been calling for a maritime embargo, imposing a no-fly zone and a comprehensive embargo on all airports and seaports under al-Shabaab control," he told Sabahi. "This would cut off foreign fighters from joining the movement and put a stop to flights carrying ammunition and weapons for the militant movements. This project, however never came to fruition because the Security Council did not endorse it and until today, there has been no activity to respond to such calls."
However, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Ramtane Lamamra said the African forces were now in a position to quell both al-Shabaab and the pirates.
"Whatever investment the international community is ready to make for Somalia, it would be really serving both causes, and in the same time assist nation-building and a post-conflict peace consolidation," he said, according to AFP.
Some analysts also called for a more comprehensive plan to ensure a powerful central authority in the country should al-Shabaab fall.
Ahmed Ali Farih, a Somali strategic analyst, said that if Ethiopian and Kenyan forces succeed in liberating the central and southern regions of Somalia, matters would rest in the hands of Somali factions. "This would mean a new chapter in the internal struggle among these competing Somali factions, as each faction has a hidden agenda to take control over the liberated territories," he said.
Ambassador Juma called for international pressure to persuade Somali politicians to work together.
"In any political electioneering process in the world, we see all sorts of wrangling, so it is not surprising that we are beginning to see conflict in parliament, people trying to jostle and position themselves," she said. "I think the responsibility of the international community is that we put enough pressure that the political process is not derailed."
Daoud Makran, professor of history at Mogadishu University, said the AU plan will "cripple the military might of al-Shabaab and increasingly mount military pressure, effectively besieging the movement from all sides". He echoed Juma's concern, however, that a military solution might not be sufficient, due to the factionalised political map.
Meanwhile, the commander of al-Shabaab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Sheikh Mukhtar Abdul Rahman Abu al-Zubair, said the retreat of his fighters from the central Hiraan region, the south-western region of Gedo and areas located in the lower Juba region in the south are a "planned and strategic tactic". In a statement to al-Shabaab-run al-Andalus radio, he vowed to continue fighting what he described as "foreign fighters invading Somali lands".
Nonetheless, AU Commissioner Lamamra dismissed media reports that al-Shabaab was mobilising a large force to counter the AU offensive.
"That is propaganda, that is the way al-Shabaab is trying to maintain together their forces. The reports we are receiving is that there is a very unusual level of desertions in the ranks of al-Shabaab," he said.