Politics

The United States seeks a way to keep its troops in Niger

A senior Pentagon official sought Thursday to blunt the impact of Niger's recent decision to revoke its military cooperation agreement with the United States, which has upended the Biden administration's security strategy in a volatile region of the 'Africa.

Saturday's announcement by Niger's military junta, if finalized, could force the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. troops and contractors from a country that has for years been a pillar of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel region , an arid zone south of the Sahara.

But in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Celeste A. Wallander, deputy secretary of defense, told lawmakers that the junta's declaration may not be as dire as It was thought so at first glance, and that American officials were trying to find a way for the United States. troops to remain in the country.

“The self-identified government of Niger has not requested or demanded the departure of the US military,” Wallander said. “There’s actually quite a mixed message. We follow up and request clarification.

Wallander said that for now, the junta has declared an end to formal military ties, but “has assured us that U.S. military forces are protected and will not take any action that could put them in harm's way.” “.

Last week, a high-level delegation of US officials, including Ms Wallander; Molly Phee, the State Department's top African official; and Gen. Michael E. Langley, 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, 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 toppled President Mohamed Bazoum last July.

“We have made it clear to Niger, including very recently, that we have a number of very real concerns in several areas and that we are troubled by the path Niger is taking,” Secretary of State said this week Antony J. Blinken.

The junta resisted the tone and content of the discussions, U.S. and Nigerien officials said, and announced its decision days after U.S. officials left.

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

U.S. officials and Western analysts said it was unclear to what extent the junta was determined to oust the U.S. military presence rather than use its statements in negotiations to gain more benefits from cooperation with Americans.

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

Many Americans assigned to Niger are stationed at American Air Base 201, a six-year-old, $110 million facility located in the country's desert north. But since the coup, troops there have remained largely inactive, with most of their drones grounded except to carry out surveillance missions to protect Americans.

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

U.S. officials say they have been trying for months to salvage relations with the junta and turn the tide. The Pentagon, however, planned for the worst eventualities if the talks failed. The Defense Ministry is discussing the creation of new drone bases with several coastal West African countries to reinforce the base in landlocked Niger. The talks are in their early stages, officials said.

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

“It’s a total disaster for the United States,” said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm. “I fear that ending all U.S. aid to Niger will not only open the door to Russia and the renamed Wagner forces operating under the banner of the Africa Corps, but also exacerbate the counterterrorism challenge at a time when al-Qaeda and groups affiliated with the Islamic State have become a formidable regional threat.

Mr. Clarke added that JNIM, Al-Qaeda's affiliate in the Sahel, “has grown significantly, not only in terms of manpower, but also in terms of the overall size of the territory over which the group now operates.”

He said that while some U.S. Army Green Berets train local troops in coastal West African countries like Benin, “the lack of a U.S. presence, coupled with weak governance and borders porous, gave the jihadists carte blanche to continue their expansion.

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