US agrees to withdraw US troops from Niger

NAPLES, Italy — The United States told Niger's government on Friday it had agreed to a request to withdraw U.S. troops from the West African nation, three U.S. officials said, a move opposed by the Biden administration and a move that would change Washington's counterterrorism posture. in the region.

The deal would end the presence of more than 1,000 US troops and call into question the status of a six-year-old $110 million US air base. It was the culmination of a military coup last year that ousted the country's democratically elected government and installed a junta that declared the US military presence “illegal”.

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

The decision was sealed on Friday in a meeting between Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Niger's Prime Minister Ali Lamine Sain.

“We have agreed to start a dialogue within a few days on how to develop a plan for troop withdrawal,” a senior State Department official said. “They agreed that we're doing it properly and responsibly. And we should probably send everybody to Niamey and sit down and hash it out. That would definitely be a Department of Defense project.

A Pentagon spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

The U.S. suspended its security cooperation with Niger, restricting U.S. operations, including unarmed drone flights. But U.S. service members remain in the country, unable to fulfill their responsibilities and feeling left in the dark by leadership at the U.S. Embassy, ​​as negotiations continue, according to a recent whistleblower complaint.

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

Over the years, the Pentagon has sent mostly a mix of Air Force and Army personnel to Niger, supporting missions to probe militant groups in the region. Until last year's coup, the arrangement involved U.S. and Nigerian troops partnering in counterterrorism drone flights and some patrols.

Niger's withdrawal announcement followed tense meetings with top officials at the State Department and Pentagon last month, which Nigerian leaders have accused of trying to dictate that the West African nation has no ties to Iran, Russia or other US adversaries.

Efforts by top U.S. officials to get Niger back on the path to democracy have made little progress toward resuming U.S. aid.

Last week, at least 100 Russian military instructors arrived in Niamey, signaling a broadening of Niger's security relationship with Moscow that could make it difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to pursue its own defense cooperation, analysts said. Russian instructors will provide Niger with training and equipment – notably an air defense system – reports on Nigerian state television said.

In discussions with U.S. officials, the junta has said Russian instructors will leave once they are trained on the equipment. “They maintain that they are not interested in a military presence from Russia or others,” the State Department official said, admitting that he could not say whether that would be true in the long run. “I can't predict where it's going to go.”

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Last weekend, hundreds of protesters gathered in Niamey in what was a largely peaceful demonstration, chanting and waving signs as they called for US troops to leave.

While the withdrawal agreement was a significant setback for US officials, a senior State Department official expressed hope that relations with Niger would rebound in areas outside of military cooperation. “The prime minister tried to reiterate that they value the historic partnership with the US and that they seek to maintain and deepen our partnership in other areas,” the official said.

Before Niger sought to oust the US military, it was forced to withdraw French troops that had led counter-terrorism operations against extremist groups in the region for the past decade, but became an unpopular post-colonial power. US officials say Washington will not leave Niger on the same terms as Paris did.

“They don't want to treat us like the French, and they don't want to blow up relations the way they did with the French,” the State Department official said.

But U.S. officials have major reservations with the military junta, which they say has paid lip service when pressed about their progress on political transition and why they have not taken concrete steps beyond a vague commitment to hold elections following the ousting of Niger's elected leaders. . Washington is tired of Niger moving towards Moscow on security issues.

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

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