In Niger, US seeks to hang on to its last, best counterterrorist outpost in West Africa
Aug 3, 2023, 9:33 PM
(AP Photo/Sam Mednick, File)
WASHINGTON (AP) — Ten days into a coup in Niger, life has become more challenging for U.S. forces at a counterterrorism base in a region of West Africa known as the world’s epicenter of terrorism.
Flights in and out of the country have been curtailed as coup leaders require Americans to seek permission for each flight. Fuel shortages mean the U.S. commander must sign off whenever an aircraft is refueled.
And yet, as several European countries evacuate Niger, the Biden administration is showing itself intent on staying. It sees Niger as the United States’ last, best counterterrorism outpost — and until the coup, a promising democracy — in an unstable region south of the Sahara Desert.
Abandoning it risks not only a surge in jihadist groups, but even greater influence by Russia’s Wagner mercenary group.
While some European governments shut embassies and evacuated their citizens on military flights this week, as scattered anti-Western protests broke out following the coup, U.S. diplomats sent home nonessential staff and some family this week but stayed on.
“The U.S. Embassy is open. We intend for it to remain open,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters in Washington.
President Joe Biden, in a statement Thursday, called for the Nigerien presidential guards who are holding democratically elected President Mohammed Bazoum to release him and immediately restore Niger’s “hard-earned democracy.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who praised Niger as a “model of resilience, a model of democracy, and a model of cooperation” when he visited in March, has been calling Niger’s captive president almost daily, affirming U.S. support for his safety and return to power.
In an opinion piece published late Thursday in The Washington Post, Bazoum urged the U.S. and others to help Niger restore its constitutional order. He warned that otherwise the “entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner Group” and Islamic extremists would take advantage of Niger’s instability.
“They will ramp up their efforts to target our youths with hateful anti-Western indoctrination, turning them against the very partners who are helping us build a more hopeful future,” the president wrote.
As the military overthrow stretches into its second week, U.S. officials refuse to formally call it a coup, saying they retain hope of a return to civilian government.
The firm U.S. stance in Niger is in contrast to its response to other recent international crises and armed takeovers. That includes in nearby Sudan, when fighting erupted between two rival generals in April. Then, American diplomats and security forces were among the first foreigners to shut down operations in Sudan and fly out.
The 2021 U.S. retreat from Afghanistan, itself an important territory for U.S. counterterrorism operations, signaled an administration willing to cut deep in paring its security obligations to focus attention on a main challenge, from China.
U.S. officials declined to say Thursday how far they would go to restore Niger’s government, including whether they would support any use of force by a regional security bloc known as ECOWAS.
“Right now, we’re focused on diplomacy,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “We still believe there’s time and space for that. The window is not going to be open forever. We understand that. But we believe it’s still open. Diplomacy should still be the first tool of choice.”
Both France — Niger’s colonial ruler and the object of much of the anti-West anger in Niger — and the United States have threatened to cut off millions of dollars in aid unless the new junta steps down.
But the usual U.S. response of sanctions and isolation when military figures seize power in West Africa is riskier now given the avidity of the jihadists and Kremlin-allied forces.
John Lechner, a West Africa analyst and author on the Wagner Group, sensed more analysts proposing some in-between solution, such as the U.S. retaining security ties in exchange for mere promises of a transition back toward democracy.
U.S. personnel, including members of the 409th Air Expeditionary Group, remain at U.S. counterterror outposts in Niger. That includes Air Base 201 in Agadez, a city of more than 100,000 people on the southern edge of the Sahara, and Air Base 101 in Niamey, Niger’s capital.
Americans have made Niger their main regional outposts for wide-ranging patrols by armed drones and other counterterror operations against Islamic extremist movements that over the years have seized territory, massacred civilians and battled foreign armies.
Air Base 201 operates in a sandstorm-whipped, remote area of Niger that serves as a gateway to the Sahara Desert for migrants and traders. In sandstorms, U.S. military personnel wear goggles and face masks as the gritty sky turns red or black.
In heat that can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), U.S. military personnel in their free time have built classrooms for local schools, created weekly English-language discussion groups, helped villagers find a lost 2-year-old girl in a nighttime desert search, challenged a local soccer team to a match, offered residents “American snacks” for International Women’s Day and delivered pencils, prayer mats, soap and other aid to communities in what one sergeant described as “the unforgiving environment of Africa.”
A civilian aviation notice this week warned that refueling was being limited at Agadez since the coup, with every single gassing up requiring approval from the 409th’s commander.
Niger’s junta closed the country’s airspace on July 27. Since then, the U.S. government has negotiated access for flights on a case-by-case basis, a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly said on the condition of anonymity.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said most U.S. forces in Niger are staying inside their military bases and are not conducting training exercises as they normally would.
Americans have invested years and hundreds of millions of dollars in training Nigerien forces.
In 2018, fighters loyal to the Islamic State group ambushed and killed four American service members, four Nigeriens and an interpreter.
West Africa recorded over 1,800 extremist attacks in the first six months of this year, which killed nearly 4,600 people, according to ECOWAS.
The Islamic extremist group Boko Haram operates in neighboring Nigeria and Chad. Along Niger’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and al-Qaida affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin pose greater threats.
“Affiliates, franchises and branches of IS and AQ are probably most robust in that part of the world, outside of Afghanistan. So, you know, there’s a lot at stake,” said Colin Clarke, research director at The Soufan Group security and intelligence consultancy.
If the coup in Niger sticks, it will alter what has been U.S. security forces’ best partnership in the region and create momentum for those forces to reduce their presence. Especially after any U.S. military drawdown, domestic turmoil from the coup could draw Niger’s troops away from the country’s borders, allowing jihadist groups to make further inroads into Niger.
Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries already are a force in neighboring Mali and the nearby Central African Republic, supporting and protecting anti-Western governments. Wagner forces usually take a share of countries’ mineral resources in return. In Niger, the country’s notable resource is high-grade uranium ore.
Wagner forces are notoriously bad at fighting Islamic extremists, with scorched-earth tactics that only draw civilians to the jihadists’ side, Clarke said.
And when Wagner is done extracting gold and other resources from a country, “they’re out, right? And the situation is then fourfold worse, and who’s there to clean it up?” he said.
Mednick reported from Niamey, Niger, and Anna from Nairobi. Lolita C. Baldor and Tara Copp in Washington contributed.