28 May 2024
0 5 mins 1 mth

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 long 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 between Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Niger’s prime minister, Ali Lamine Zeine, during a meeting earlier Friday.

“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 has 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.

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 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 apparent 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.

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 seeking to maintain a continued military presence, the senior State Department official held out hope that the relationship with Niger could stabilize and bounce back. “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.

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

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