By withdrawing from Niger, American forces lose a strategic position in the Sahel

With the sending of a delegation to Niger on Wednesday, May 15, to discuss the terms of withdrawal of their troops – a requirement of the military regime that came to power in July – the United States is preparing to abandon a strategic position in Sahel, where Russia and Iran are gaining ground

By withdrawing from Niger, American forces lose a strategic position in the Sahel

With the sending of a delegation to Niger on Wednesday, May 15, to discuss the terms of withdrawal of their troops – a requirement of the military regime that came to power in July – the United States is preparing to abandon a strategic position in Sahel, where Russia and Iran are gaining ground. In March, the Nigerien authorities denounced the military cooperation agreement in force with the United States, considering that the presence of American soldiers deployed as part of the anti-jihadist fight was now “illegal”.

Air base 201, located on the outskirts of Agadez (north), has since 2019 allowed American drones and aircraft to carry out surveillance missions in a vast region with porous borders, where armed groups (notably jihadists) and drug trafficking proliferate. weapons, drugs and human beings. The American army's Reaper drones could thus fly over the territory of Niger to the borders of Libya, Chad, Nigeria and Mali, countries which have limited aerial surveillance capabilities.

The ruling military in Niamey demanded the departure of U.S. forces after Washington officials expressed concern about “Niger’s potential relations with Russia and Iran.” After Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger is the third country in the Sahel to experience a coup and to break its partnerships with Western countries to turn towards Russia.

Signs of rapprochement with Iran

The fate of Niger's uranium reserves, the world's seventh largest producer, worries American officials. In recent months, Iran has significantly increased its stock of enriched uranium, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Tehran has been increasing signs of rapprochement with Niamey since the coup of July 26, 2023. Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine, however, assured Tuesday in an interview with the Washington Post that “nothing” had been signed with Iran regarding uranium.

At the end of 2023, the number of American soldiers deployed in Niger was estimated at 650, plus a few hundred contract workers. Some of these soldiers are stationed at the Agadez air base, another inside air base 101 of the Nigerien armed forces, in Niamey, alongside other foreign contingents. American soldiers were mainly deployed in Niger and neighboring Chad as part of the anti-jihadist fight, but all military cooperation was suspended in Niger in the wake of the coup.

Previously, American special forces intervened discreetly alongside the Nigerien army against jihadist groups. On October 4, 2017, four American soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers were killed in an ambush by the Islamic State (IS) group in Tongo Tongo, a village in the Tillabéri region, about twenty kilometers from the border with Mali.

American drones also supported the Nigerian army against the jihadist groups of Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa (Iswap) in the southeast of the country, close to Nigeria. Finally, the United States conducted intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations, which resumed in September 2023 but only for U.S. “force protection” purposes, according to the Department of Defense.

A poorly perceived foreign presence

The United States has supplied military equipment to Niger since 1962, following the independence of this former French colony. Armored vehicles, surveillance and military transport aircraft, communications and transmission center… These deliveries had increased as part of the fight against the jihadists. Since 1980, the Nigerien army and its officers have also had access to the International Military Education an Training (IMET) program, which provides funding for the studies and training of foreign military personnel, including in centers and academies in the United States.

Nigerien public opinion has long been hostile to the presence of foreign forces on its territory. In 2022, about two-thirds of Nigeriens “disagreed that the government should use foreign military forces to secure the country,” according to an Afrobarometer poll. The departure of French forces in December sparked little controversy in this country where armed groups continue to carry out attacks despite the commitment of Western partners.

In terms of security, “the Agadez region finds no use in the presence of the Americans,” Amodi Arrandishou, president of a platform of civil society organizations in Agadez, told AFP. “The Americans remained on our soil without doing anything when the terrorists were killing our populations and burning communities,” the Prime Minister added on Tuesday.