Home News U.S. Searching for a Way to Keep Troops in Niger

U.S. Searching for a Way to Keep Troops in Niger

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U.S. Searching for a Way to Keep Troops in Niger

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A senior Pentagon official on Thursday sought to soften the impact of Niger’s recent decision to revoke its military cooperation deal with the United States, which has upended the Biden administration’s security strategy in a volatile swath of Africa.

The announcement by Niger’s military junta on Saturday, if finalized, could force the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. military personnel and contractors from a country that for years has been a linchpin of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel region, an arid area south of the Sahara.

But in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Celeste A. Wallander, an assistant secretary of defense, told lawmakers that the junta’s pronouncement might not be as dire as first thought, and that U.S. officials were trying to find a way for American troops to stay in the country.

“The self-identified government of Niger has not asked or demanded that the United States military depart,” Ms. Wallander said. “There is actually quite a mixed message. We are following up and seeking clarification.”

Ms. Wallander said that for now, the junta has declared an end to formal military ties, but that “they have assured us that American military forces are protected and they will take no action that would endanger them.”

Last week a high level-delegation of U.S. officials, including Ms. Wallander; Molly Phee, the State Department’s top Africa official; and Gen. Michael E. Langley, the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, traveled to Niger to meet with members of the military junta.

In meetings that Pentagon and State Department officials described as tense, the Americans expressed serious concerns about the junta’s growing security ties with Russia, its negotiations to give Iran access to Niger’s vast uranium reserves and the lack of a clear road map to restore democratic rule after the coup that ousted President Mohamed Bazoum last July.

“We made clear in Niger, including very recently, that we had a number of very real concerns in several areas and were troubled by the path that Niger was on,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said this week.

The junta bridled at the tone and substance of the discussions, American and Nigerien officials said, and announced its decision a few days after the U.S. officials left.

Niger’s rejection of military ties with the United States follows the withdrawal of French troops from the country. France, the former colonial power, has led foreign counterterrorism efforts against jihadist groups in West Africa for the past decade but has lately been perceived as a pariah in the region.

U.S. officials and Western analysts said it was unclear how committed the junta was to ousting the American military presence rather than using its pronouncement in negotiations to extract more benefits from cooperating with the Americans.

Ms. Wallander made the administration’s position clear, telling lawmakers that “countries that are run by military juntas are not reliable security partners.” She added that “part of the value proposition for us having access in Niger would be a return to democratic civilian rule in Niger.”

Many of the Americans posted to Niger are stationed at U.S. Air Base 201, a six-year-old, $110 million installation in the country’s desert north. But since the coup, the troops there have been largely inactive, with most of their drones grounded except to fly surveillance missions to help protect the Americans.

Because of the coup, the United States suspended security operations and development aid to Niger.

American officials say they have tried for months to salvage relations with the junta and to reverse its course. The Pentagon, however, has been planning for the worst-case contingencies if the talks failed. The Defense Department has been discussing establishing new drone bases with several coastal West African countries as backups to the base in Niger, which is landlocked. The talks are still in early stages, officials said.

U.S. security analysts said a final decision by the junta to revoke the agreement would be particularly damaging following a spate of other coups in the region, including in Mali and Burkina Faso, and because of the rising influence of Russia and China on the continent.

“It’s a total mess for the United States,” said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in New York. “I’m concerned that the end of any U.S. assistance to Niger not only opens the door for Russia and the rebranded Wagner forces operating under the banner of Africa Corps, but also exacerbates the counterterrorism challenge at a time when Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates have grown into a formidable regional threat.”

Mr. Clarke added that JNIM, the Qaeda affiliate in the Sahel, “has expanded significantly, not just in terms of manpower, but in the overall amount of territory the group now operates across.”

He said that while some U.S. Army Green Berets are training local troops in West African coastal countries like Benin, “the lack of a U.S. presence, coupled with weak governance and porous borders, has offered jihadists free rein to continue expanding.”

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