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U.S. military operations across Africa’s Sahel region at risk after Niger ends cooperation

Officials scrambling to assess future of counterterrorism operations

By Jessica Donati and Sam Mednick, Associated Press
Published: March 17, 2024, 4:47pm

DAKAR, Senegal — The United States scrambled on Sunday to assess the future of its counterterrorism operations in the Sahel after Niger’s junta said it was ending its yearslong military cooperation with Washington following a visit by top U.S. officials.

The U.S. military has hundreds of troops stationed at a major airbase in northern Niger that deploys flights over the vast Sahel region — south of the Sahara Desert — where jihadi groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group operate.

Top U.S. envoy Molly Phee returned to the capital, Niamey, last week to meet with senior government officials, accompanied by Marine Gen. Michael Langley, head of the U.S. military’s African Command. She had previously visited in December, while acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland traveled to the country in August.

The State Department said Sunday in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that talks were frank and that it was in touch with the junta. It wasn’t clear whether the U.S. has any leeway left to negotiate a deal to stay in the country.

Niger had been seen as one of the last nations in the restive region that Western nations could partner with to beat back growing jihadi insurgencies. The U.S. and France had more than 2,500 military personnel in the region until recently, and together with other European countries had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance and training.

But that changed in July when mutinous soldiers ousted the country’s democratically elected president and months later asked French forces to leave.

The U.S. military still had some 650 personnel working in Niger in December, according to a White House report to Congress. The Niger base is used for both manned and unmanned surveillance operations. In the Sahel, the U.S. also supports ground troops, including accompanying them on missions. However, such accompanied missions have been scaled back since U.S. troops were killed in a joint operation in Niger in 2017.

It’s unclear what prompted the junta’s decision to suspend military ties. On Saturday, the junta’s spokesperson, Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, said U.S. flights over Niger’s territory in recent weeks were illegal. Meanwhile, Insa Garba Saidou, a local activist who assists Niger’s military rulers with their communications, criticized U.S. efforts to force the junta to pick between strategic partners.

“The American bases and civilian personnel cannot stay on Nigerian soil any longer,” he told The Associated Press.

After her trip in December, Phee, the top U.S. envoy, told reporters she had “good discussions” with junta leaders and called on them to set a timeline for elections in return for restoring military and aid ties. But she also said the U.S. had warned Niamey against forging closer ties with Russia.

Neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, which have experienced two coups each since 2020, have turned to Moscow for security support. After the coup in Niger, the military also turned to the Russian mercenary group Wagner for help.

Cameron Hudson, who served with the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department in Africa, said the incident shows the diminution of U.S. leverage in the region and that Niger was angered by Washington’s attempt to pressure the junta to steer clear of Russia. “This is ironic since one mantra of the Biden Administration has been that Africans are free to choose their partners,” he said.

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The U.S. delegation visit coincided with the start of Ramadan, a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and intense prayer for Muslims. Niger’s junta leader, Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, refused to meet them. A U.S. press conference at the embassy in Niger was canceled.

The junta spokesperson, speaking on state television, said junta leaders met the U.S. delegation only out of courtesy and described their tone as condescending.

Aneliese Bernard — a former U.S. State Department official who specialized in African affairs and director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a risk advisory group — said the recent visit had failed and the U.S. needs to take a critical look at how it’s doing diplomacy not just in Niger but in the whole region.

“What’s going on in Niger and the Sahel cannot be looked at continuously in a vacuum as we always do,” she said. “The United States government tends to operate with blinders on. We can’t deny that our deteriorating relationships in other parts of the world — the Gulf, Israel and others — all have an influential impact on our bilateral relations in countries in West Africa.”

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