May 24, 2024

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The US military withdraws its forces from Niger

The US military withdraws its forces from Niger

More than 1,000 U.S. troops will leave Niger in the coming months, upending U.S. counterterrorism and security policy in Africa's troubled Sahel region, Biden administration officials said Friday.

In the second of two meetings this week in Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told Niger's Prime Minister, Ali Lamine Zein, that the United States does not agree with the country turning toward Russia for security and Iran for a potential uranium deal. reserves, and the failure of Niger's military government to chart a path back to democracy, according to a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic talks.

The decision was not a particular surprise. Niger said last month that it would cancel its military cooperation agreement with the United States after a series of controversial meetings in Niger's capital, Niamey, with a high-level American diplomatic and military delegation.

This step is in line with the recent pattern followed by countries in the Sahel region, an arid region south of the Sahara, of cutting ties with Western countries. Increasingly, they are partnering with Russia instead.

American officials said that American diplomats sought in the past few weeks to salvage the renewed military cooperation agreement with the military government in Niger, but they ultimately failed to reach a compromise.

The talks collapsed amid a growing wave of ill feeling toward the American presence in Niger. Thousands of demonstrators in the capital last Saturday called for the withdrawal of US armed forces personnel, just days after Russia delivered its own batch of military equipment and trainers to the country's military.

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Niger's refusal to establish military ties with the United States comes after the withdrawal of its forces from France, the former colonial power that over the past decade has led foreign counterterrorism efforts against jihadist groups in West Africa, but has recently been viewed as a pariah in the region. .

US officials said on Friday that discussions with Niger to plan an “orderly and responsible withdrawal” of forces would begin in the coming days and that the process would take months to complete.

Many of the Americans deployed in Niger are stationed at US Air Base 201, a six-year-old, $110 million facility located in the country's northern desert. But since the military coup that ousted President Mohamed Bazoum and installed a junta last July, forces there have remained inactive, with most of their MQ-9 Reaper drones grounded except for those carrying out surveillance missions to protect US forces.

It is unclear what, if any, access the United States will have to the base in the future, and whether Russian advisers and perhaps even the Russian air force will act if Niger's ties with the Kremlin deepen.

Because of the coup, the United States was forced to suspend security operations and development aid to Niger. Mr. Bazoum remains in detention, eight months after his ouster. However, the United States wished to maintain its partnership with the country.

But the surprise arrival of 100 Russian trainers and air defense systems in Niger last week made the chances of short-term cooperation less likely. According to Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, the Russian personnel are part of the Africa Corps, the new paramilitary structure that aims to replace the Wagner Group, the military company whose mercenaries and operations are deployed in Africa under the command of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who was killed in a plane crash last year.

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Protesters in Niamey on Saturday waved Russian flags as well as those of Burkina Faso and Mali, two neighboring countries whose military-led governments have also requested Russian aid to help fight rebels linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

American officials say that they have been trying for months to prevent an official break in relations with the military junta in Niger.

The new US ambassador to Niger, Kathleen Fitzgibbon, one of Washington's top Africa specialists, has held regular discussions with the junta since she officially took office at the beginning of the year.

On a trip to Niger in December, Molly Fee, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the United States intended to resume security and development cooperation with Niger, even as she called for a rapid transition to civilian rule and the release of Mr. Morsi. Bazoum.

But the Pentagon was planning for the worst if the talks failed. The Department of Defense is discussing establishing new drone bases with several coastal West African countries as backups to the base in Niger, a landlocked country. Military officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters, said the talks were still in their early stages.

Current and former security officials and diplomats said that Niger's strategically important position and willingness to enter into a partnership with Washington will be difficult to replace.

“While the ordinary people of Niger will bear the brunt of the consequences of the U.S. military withdrawal and the resulting loss of political and diplomatic interest, the United States and its allies also lose,” J. Peter Pham, a former U.S. special envoy to the Sahel, said in an email. At least in the short term, strategic military assets that will be very difficult to replace.

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