US military withdrawing troops from Niger

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

In the second of two meetings in Washington this week, Under Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell told Niger's prime minister, Ali Lamine Sain, that the U.S. does not accept the U.S. turning to Russia for protection and Iran for its potential uranium deal. The reserves and Niger's military government have failed to chart a path back to democracy, according to a senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic negotiations.

The result is not a particular surprise. Niger said last month it was scrapping a military cooperation agreement with the United States following highly controversial meetings with a high-level US diplomatic and military delegation in Niger's capital, Niamey.

The move was in line with a recent pattern of countries in the Sahel region, an arid region south of the Sahara, cutting ties with the West. Increasingly, they are instead allied with Russia.

US diplomats have spent the past several weeks trying to revive a renewed military cooperation agreement with Niger's military government, but they ultimately failed to strike a compromise.

The talks broke down amid a wave of bad feelings about the US presence in Niger. Thousands of protesters in the capital last Saturday called for the withdrawal of US troops, days after Russia provided its own military equipment and trainers to the country's military.

Niger's rejection of military ties to the United States followed the withdrawal of troops from France, leading to foreign counterterrorism efforts against jihadist groups in West Africa over the past decades, but it has recently been considered a pariah in the region. .

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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 several months to complete.

Many of the Americans sent to Niger are stationed at US Air Base 201, a six-year-old, $110 million installation in the desert north of the country. But since a military coup last July that ousted President Mohamed Bassum and installed a military regime, troops there have been inactive, with most of their MQ-9 Reaper drones grounded except for flying surveillance missions to protect US troops.

It's unclear what future access the U.S. will have to the base, and whether Russian advisers and perhaps even Russian air forces will move if Niger's ties to the Kremlin deepen.

Because of the coup, the United States had to suspend security operations and development aid to Niger. Mr. Basoom is still under arrest eight months after his removal. However, the US wanted to maintain its partnership with that country.

But the surprise arrival of 100 Russian instructors and an air-defense system in Niger last week made the prospect of cooperation even more unlikely in the short term. According to Russia's state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, the Russian personnel are part of the Africa Corps, a new paramilitary structure that will replace the Wagner Group, whose military company was headed by Yevgeny V, whose mercenaries and operations spread across Africa. Prigogine was killed in a plane crash last year.

Demonstrators in Niamey on Saturday waved Russian flags and those of two neighboring countries, Burkina Faso and Mali, where military-led governments have sought Russian help to fight Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked rebels.

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US officials say they have been trying for months to prevent a formal breakdown in relations with Niger's regime.

The new US ambassador to Niger, Kathleen Fitzgibbon, one of Washington's top Africa experts, has held regular discussions with the military junta since taking office earlier this year.

On a trip to Niger in December, Molly Fee, the assistant secretary for African affairs, said the United States wanted to resume security and development cooperation with Niger, which she called a rapid transition to civilian rule and Mr. Basoom.

But if the talks fail, the Pentagon is planning for the worst-case scenario. The Defense Department is discussing establishing new drone bases with several coastal West African countries as a backup to the base in landlocked Niger. The talks are still in their early stages, military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters.

Current and former defense and diplomatic officials said Niger's strategic location and willingness to partner with Washington would be difficult to change.

Former US special envoy for the Sahel, J. Peter Baum wrote in an email, “The ordinary people of Niger will bear the brunt of the US military withdrawal and subsequent loss of political and diplomatic attention. States and their allies also lose, at least in the short term, a strategic military asset that will be very difficult to replace.

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