US Holds Out Hope for Partnership with Niger

Pentagon — The United States is not ruling out a continued military presence in Niger, despite a statement by the country’s ruling military junta that it was ending an agreement allowing for the presence of American forces engaged in counterterrorism missions.

U.S. defense officials said Monday the U.S. has yet to withdraw any of its approximately 1,000 military personnel from Niger and, along with officials from the White House and the State Department, said conversations with Nigerien officials are continuing.

“We remain in contact,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters Monday, adding that Niger’s military junta has yet to share information on a possible deadline for U.S. forces to leave the country.

“We have different lines of communications at all levels of government with Niger and our government,” she said. “Again, we want to see our partnership continue if there is a pathway forward.”

At the State Department, deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said most of the talks, for now, have been centered through the U.S. Embassy.

“We continue to have our ambassador and our embassy team there, and we’re continuing to discuss with them [Nigerien officials],” he said.

“We believe our security partnerships in West Africa are mutually beneficial and they are intended [to] achieve, I should say, what we think to be shared goals of detecting, deterring and reducing terrorist violence,” Patel added.

A spokesperson for the ruling military junta announced Saturday that it had revoked, effective immediately, the status of forces agreement that allowed U.S. forces to operate in the country and cooperate with the Nigerien military against militants linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State terror group.

Colonel Amadou Abdramane said the decision was based, in part, on what he called a “condescending attitude” by U.S. officials in a high-level delegation that met with Nigerien officials in the capital of Niamey last week.

“Niger regrets the intention of the American delegation to deny the sovereign Nigerien people the right to choose their partners and types of partnerships capable of truly helping them fight against terrorism,” he said.

U.S. officials, in contrast, described last week’s talks, as “direct and frank,” providing U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee, Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander and U.S. Africa Command’s General Michael Langley a chance to express Washington’s concerns while also hearing from Nigerien military and civilian officials.

“We were troubled on the path that Niger is on,” the Pentagon’s Singh told reporters Monday, admitting that some of the concerns centered on Niger’s “potential relationships with Russia and Iran.”

Iran hosted Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine in January and voiced a willingness to help Niger cope with international sanctions levied following the July 2023 coup.

But Niger’s military junta bristled at what it said were “misleading allegations” by U.S. officials that Niger had struck a secret deal to provide Tehran with uranium.

The junta also defended its relationship with Moscow, saying Russia partners with Niger to provide its military with equipment needed in the country’s fight against various terrorist groups.

U.S. officials, though, have previously expressed concerns about Russian defense officials making visits to Niger following the July coup.

And a top U.S. lawmaker Monday, suggested Russian influence may have played a role in the military junta’s announcement.

“Part of this is Russia’s attempt to insinuate themselves in the region dramatically and to cause us [the U.S.] problems,” said Senator Jack Reed, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Reed, a Democrat, told a virtual meeting of the Washington-based Defense Writers Group that Niger’s ruling junta has been sending the U.S. signals for months that it might seek to evict U.S. forces.

“We will have to counter that … by repositioning forces and capabilities so we can still have observation and influence in that area of the Sahel,” Reed said, noting that U.S. military officials have been considering other options.

U.S. military officials confirmed last August, following the coup, that a search for alternative sites was underway. But the Pentagon refused to say Monday how much progress had been made.

There are also concerns about getting other allies or partners in the region to agree to host a significant U.S. presence, and whether the location can provide the same kind of quick and easy access to terrorist targets, like the U.S. bases in Niger.

Most U.S. forces in Niger are currently located at Air Base 201 in the Nigerien city of Agadez, on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

The base, built about six years ago at a cost of $110 million, allowed the U.S. to conduct surveillance and counterterrorism missions with a fleet of U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones.

But the U.S. suspended all counterterrorism missions from the base following the July 2023 coup, saying personnel have been limited to conducting operations only for the purpose of protecting U.S. forces.

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