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US, Niger delegation meet to discuss US forces withdrawal



 Nigeriens gather in a street to protest against the U.S. military presence, in Niamey, Niger April 13, 2024. [Reuters]

After nearly a two-week delay, U.S and Nigerien officials are holding high-level follow-on meetings to coordinate the withdrawal of American troops from the country.

Christopher Maier, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, and Lieutenant General Dagvin Anderson, joint staff director for joint force development, are meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Niamey with members of Niger’s new government, known as the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland, or CNSP, two U.S. officials told VOA.

The CNSP posted on the social platform X Wednesday that Maier and Anderson met Wednesday with Lieutenant General Salifou Mody, one of the military coup members who was named minister of national defense.

The CNSP noted that the meeting comes two months after Niger denounced its military basing agreements with the United States and aims to “ensure that this withdrawal takes place in the best possible conditions, guaranteeing order, security and compliance with set deadlines.”

There are about 900 U.S. military personnel in Niger, including active duty, civilians and contractors, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity ahead of the conclusion of the talks. Most of the U.S. military personnel have stayed in the country past their deployment’s planned end dates, as details for their withdrawal are ironed out.

“We're still in a bit of a holding pattern,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said last week.

Counterterrorism in 'disarray'

The U.S. has had two military bases — Air Base 101 in Niamey and Air Base 201 in Agadez —to monitor terror groups in the region. Officials say most U.S. forces are based in the latter, which cost the U.S. $110 million to build, and began drone operations in 2019.

Niger’s natural resources have increased its importance to global powers, and Niger’s location had provided the U.S. with the ability to conduct counterterror operations throughout much of West Africa.

“We're in a different position now, and we're going to continue to consult with the Nigeriens in terms of the orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces. We're going to continue to stay engaged with the partners in the region when it comes to terrorism and countering the terrorist threat,” Pentagon press secretary Major General Pat Ryder told reporters on Tuesday.

Countries in the region, including Niger, Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, have seen an expansive rise in jihadist movements.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, an annual report covering terrorist incidents worldwide, more than half of the deaths caused by terrorism last year were in the Sahel.

Niger’s neighbor, Burkina Faso, suffered the worst, with 1,907 fatalities from terrorism in 2023.

“These are some of the most dangerous areas in the world,” Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, told VOA. “These countries are in dire threat of being overrun by jihadist groups.”

Now, Niger’s coup has put the West’s ability to monitor terrorists like the Islamic State and al-Qaida in the Sahel in “complete disarray,” according to Roggio.

The United States’ intelligence-gathering capacity was limited before, “but we're approaching the point where intelligence-gathering is practically at zero,” he said.

A U.S. defense official told VOA that “basically every flight,” even intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone flights, must be approved by the junta.

“The beginning of April is when things started getting slower,” the official told VOA. The junta began delaying and canceling the types of U.S. military flights that had been quickly approved before then.

Carla Martinez Machain, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo, believes the Pentagon will try to negotiate with Chad for a more significant American troop presence, as the U.S. struggles to find allies in what she called the “coup belt” — a reference to the recent coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

However, most U.S. forces have temporarily left from Chad for Germany in recent weeks, a move the Pentagon called a "temporary step" as part of an ongoing review of its security cooperation with Chad, which would resume after the country’s May 6 presidential election.

Only a small group of service members remain in Chad as part of a multinational task force, officials tell VOA.

“Niger was somewhat of a rarity in the sense that it had one of the few democratically elected governments in the region, and also a democratically elected government that was friendly to the U.S. and willing to host a U.S. military presence,” Martinez Machain told VOA. “And so, finding a replacement for that for a military base is going to be somewhat difficult.”

Unless the U.S. can find another base to use in West Africa, counterterror drones will likely have to spend most of their fuel supply flying thousands of kilometers from U.S. bases in Italy or Djibouti, severely limiting their time over the targets and their ability to gather intelligence.

“The beauty of having drones based in Niger was that they were in the thick of the fight. They were in the middle of where jihadist groups are operating. So, once you launch the drones, they're in the midst of it, and all of the flight time being used can be used to gather information,” Roggio said.

Resupply concerns

Amid the negotiations and flight cancellations, U.S. troops in Niger began raising concerns about their supply chain. Service members in Niamey told the office of Representative Matt Gaetz that blood for the blood bank, hygiene supplies, malaria pills and other medications were running low.

A U.S. defense official acknowledged to VOA that “they were concerned about medication levels.” The official also said that troops in Niamey had gone through April without a resupply flight but had received food and water supplies through ground-based transportation.

A flight with medical supplies finally went from Agadez to Niamey last week, the defense official told VOA.

Coup forced withdrawal

Tensions between the U.S. and Niger began in 2023 when Niger’s military junta removed the democratically elected president from power.

After months of delay, the Biden administration formally declared in October that the military takeover in Niger was a coup, a determination that prevented Niger from receiving a significant amount of U.S. military and foreign assistance.

In March, after tense meetings between U.S. representatives and the CNSP, the junta called the U.S. military presence “illegal” and announced it was ending an agreement that allowed American forces to be based in the country.

During that meeting, the U.S. and Niger fundamentally disagreed about Niger’s desire to supply Iran with uranium and work more closely with Russian military forces.

“They [Niger] saw this as kind of an imperialistic move, and this was seen negatively and was part of the reason why the U.S. was told to leave the country,” Martinez Machain said.

Russia has made significant military inroads across the African continent, Martinez Machain added, because human rights violators are able to obtain military training, assistance and defense systems “without the conditions that the U.S. would attach them.”

“Especially for nondemocratic countries, this can seem very appealing,” she said.

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