US departure from Niger ‘already underway’ ahead of September deadline

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After a chaotic, months long saga, the U.S. has begun withdrawing its forces from Niger.

The two countries announced their decision in a joint statement on Sunday, after almost a week of military talks. The deadline is September 15.

America has relied on the west African country as a counter-terrorism hub for more than a decade. Until recently, more than 1,000 U.S. personnel have operated there, most working from an airbase near Agadez, which cost more than $100 million and sits in the country’s center.

“This is not a good outcome,” said a senior defense official, briefing reporters Sunday on the condition of anonymity. “We’re leaving Niger after a significant investment and a lot of time invested in the partnership.”

Those ties began to fray last summer after a coup swapped the ruling government with a military junta known as the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland, or CNSP. The U.S. didn’t label the revolt a coup — an legal title that limits how much support America can offer — until October 2023. By then, the new government had already asked French forces also stationed in the country to depart.

This March, shortly after an earlier round of talks, a spokesman for the CNSP announced that America’s military could no longer keep operating there. The video surprised U.S. officials, who also weren’t at first sure whether it was official Nigerien policy or bluster.

But in the months that followed the decision became clear: the U.S. would be leaving; it only needed to negotiate how.

Developing a plan to do so was the purpose of the talks this month, led by the two militaries.

Niger agreed to protect American forces while they withdrew and help hasten some of the logistics.

The U.S., meanwhile, will remove all military personnel from the country. About 100, non-essential personnel have already left, said a senior military official who also joined the briefing.

“It is already underway,” said the defense official.

With them will come stores of equipment to be largely spread around other sites belonging to U.S. Africa Command. America will remove all sensitive and lethal kit, the officials said, but will leave anything that’s fixed — such as a barracks or hangar — or that costs more to move than it’s worth. The departure is mainly taking place over the air, rather than on the ground, making everything more expensive to transport.

The two officials doubted that, for now, any of the remaining equipment would end up in a foreign government’s hands. This month, the Pentagon confirmed reports that Russian soldiers were stationed near U.S. forces near the capital, which added to concern that Moscow was replacing Washington in the country.

”There’s definitely an interest right now in the [Nigerien] military to not upset things,” the U.S. military official said. “I don’t think in the short term we’ll see them turn this equipment over to others.”

Instead, the official expected the Nigeriens to use it for their own counter-terrorism fight, which has grown more acute in recent years as violent extremism rises in the region. America’s presence in the country was focused on that mission, conducting operations itself an training the Nigerien military to do so as well.

And while U.S. operations have paused in recent months, the military official said, the Nigerien forces it trained have continued their own counter-terrorism work.

As it withdraws, America will also turn to the future of its relationship with the country. The two officials briefing reporters colored it in warm hues, saying their military ties — aside from some in Niger’s military who are leading the government — are still strong.

“There’s a generation of the Nigerien military … that have grown up with U.S. training, U.S. equipment, U.S. education,” the defense official said. “That’s something that we would expect that they will continue to desire.”

Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell will likely travel to Niger in the coming months to discuss the two countries’ future.

“They thought it was important to emphasize that they did not see this as the closing of the relationship,” the military official said.

Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.

Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media

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