U.S. agrees to withdraw American troops from Niger

NAPLES, Italy — The United States informed the government of Niger on Friday that it agreed to its request to withdraw U.S. troops from the West African country, said three U.S. officials, a move the Biden administration had resisted and one that will transform Washington’s counterterrorism posture in the region.

The agreement will spell the end of a U.S. troop presence that totaled more than 1,000 and throw into question the status of a $110 million U.S. air base that is only six years old. It is the culmination of a military coup last year that ousted the country’s democratically elected government and installed a junta that declared America’s military presence there “illegal.”

“The prime minister has asked us to withdraw U.S. troops, and we have agreed to do that,” a senior State Department official told The Washington Post in an interview. This official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive situation.

The decision was sealed in a meeting earlier Friday between Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Niger’s prime minister, Ali Lamine Zeine.

“We’ve agreed to begin conversations within days about how to develop a plan” to withdraw troops, said the senior State Department official. “They’ve agreed that we do it in an orderly and responsible way. And we will need to probably dispatch folks to Niamey to sit down and hash it out. And that of course will be a Defense Department project.”

A Pentagon spokesman did not immediately offer comment.

The United States had paused its security cooperation with Niger, limiting U.S. activities — including unarmed drone flights. But U.S. service members have remained in the country, unable to fulfill their responsibilities and feeling left in the dark by leadership at the U.S. Embassy as negotiations continued, according to a recent whistleblower complaint.

The Sahel region, including neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, has become a global hot spot for Islamist extremism in recent years, and Niger saw such attacks spike dramatically following the coup. For U.S. officials who viewed the base as an important counterterrorism asset, the withdrawal agreement is a significant setback. “I think it’s undeniable that it was a platform in a unique part of African geography,” the State Department official said.

For years, the Pentagon has deployed a mix of mostly Air Force and Army personnel to Niger to support a mission scrutinizing militant groups in the region. Until the coup last year, the arrangement included counterterrorism drones flights and U.S. and Nigerien troops partnering on some patrols.

Niger’s eviction notice last month followed tense meetings with top officials from the State Department and the Pentagon, whom Nigerien leaders accused of attempting to dictate that the West African nation have no relationship with Iran, Russia or other U.S. adversaries.

Efforts by top American officials to persuade Niger to get back on a democratic pathway so that U.S. assistance could resume have made little headway.

Last week, at least 100 Russian military instructors arrived in Niamey, marking an escalation of Niger’s security relationship with Moscow that analysts said could make it difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to continue its own security cooperation. Reports on Nigerien state television said that the Russian instructors would be providing training and equipment — specifically an air defense system — to Niger.

In discussions with U.S. officials, the junta has claimed that once Russian instructors provide training on the equipment, they will leave. “They maintain … that they’re not interested in a military presence from Russia or others,” said the State Department official, who conceded that it was impossible to tell if that would hold true for the long term. “I can’t predict where that will go.”

This past weekend, hundreds of protesters gathered in Niamey in what was a largely peaceful demonstration, chanting and waving signs as they called on the American troops to leave.

While the agreement to depart is a significant setback for U.S. officials, the senior State Department official held out hope that the relationship with Niger could bounce back in areas outside of military cooperation. “The prime minister repeatedly sought to emphasize that they value the historic partnership with the United States, and that they seek to maintain and deepen our partnership in other sectors,” the official said.

Before Niger sought to oust the U.S. military, it forced the withdrawal of French troops who had spearheaded counterterrorism operations against extremist groups in the region for the past decade but had become an unpopular post-colonial power. U.S. officials claim that Washington will not be leaving Niger on the same terms as Paris did.

“They do not want to treat us like the French, and they do not want to blow up the relationship the way they did with the French,” said the State Department official.

But U.S. officials harbor major reservations with the junta, which they said has paid lip service when pressed about their progress on a political transition and why they’ve not taken specific steps other than a vague commitment to holding elections following its ouster of Niger’s elected leaders. Washington is also weary of Niger’s drift toward Moscow on security matters.

Dan Lamothe in Washington and Rachel Chason in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post