Politics & News

Relocating Troops: US Struggles to Keep Military Presence in West Africa

The top US military officer is traveling to Botswana to meet with African defense chiefs this week at the Chiefs of Defense Conference, reported Reuters.

On his trip, General CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will discuss with his African counterparts ways to keep some of the US military presence in West Africa, after US troops withdrawal from Niger and Chad.

Seeking Opportunities

Before arriving in Botswana, Brown on Monday told reporters travelling with him that he intends to speak with several partners in the region. He said: “I do see some opportunities. And there’s countries that we’re already working with in West Africa.”

He added that enhancing those relations may “provide opportunities for us to posture some of the capability we had in Niger in some other locations.”

Although Brown didn’t mention which countries were under consideration, a US official told Reuters that the Joe Biden Administration has held initial talks with Benin, Ivory Coast, and Ghana.

US-African Military Conference

The US and Botswana co-host the Chiefs of Defense Conference in Gaborone. It gathers defense chiefs and top military leaders from 40 African countries to exchange knowledge, bolster partnerships and collaboration, in addition to discussing shared security and stability challenges.

Brown stressed the importance of the Chiefs of Defense Conference, reported the Associated Press (AP). He said that the US needs to have dialogue with African countries about the US military presence. “That’s why this conference is important,” he added.

The US defense officials regard the conference as a chance to show African leaders that the US is open to local solutions. A US defense official told AP that the Botswana conference provides an opportunity to boost military relations across the continent.

Scaled-down Military Presence

After leaving Niger, the US military is not expected to have a strong presence there anytime soon. The US has lost Airbase 201 in the city of Agadez, built at a cost of more than $100mn.

Speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, a second US official ruled out another US major base or total relocation of American troops from Niger to elsewhere. He said: “We do not expect a large military construction announcement or a significant new base to appear anywhere.”

US Out, Russia In: Changing Dynamics in Niger and Counterterrorism in Africa
Nigeriens protesting US military presence

Counterterrorism Efforts

After last July’s coup in Niger, the ruling junta ordered the US and French troops to leave the country, as the junta sought security assistance from the Russian Wagner Group.

Niger was the cornerstone of the US counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel Region. It has hosted two US military bases, Air Base 101 and Air Base 201, from where the US conducted manned and unmanned surveillance flights and other operations. The airbase also hosted around 1,000 US military personnel.

In October, the US officially designated the military takeover as a coup, a decision that required Washington to restrict its military and security support for Niger. As a result, the American forces had to abandon the critical drone base they used for counterterrorism operations in the Sahel region.

The senior defense official told AP that the US withdrawal from Niger is about 30% complete, with only 600 troops remaining at Air Base 101. They will complete withdrawal on September 15 as scheduled.

Changing Landscape

In recent years, the political landscape in West Africa and the Sahel has been shifting. The region experienced eight military coups in four years, including in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali.

As a result, the juntas ruling those countries have become less willing to work with Western countries, and are increasingly turning to Russia and China, presenting a dilemma to the US.

In this regard, Catherine Nzuki at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies told Reuters: “The political question that I think the Department of State is asking, the Department of Defense is asking, is: Are we losing allies in the region? Are things changing too rapidly for us to keep up?”

Superpower Competition

In early May, US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, confirmed that Russian troops have been operating from Air Base 101, from which American troops operated in Niger.

Relocating Troops: US Struggles to Keep Military Presence in West Africa
Airbase 101 in Niamy

In the light of this, Dr. Nermeen Tawfik, an Egyptian researcher specialized in African Affairs, told Leaders MENA Magazine that this “reflects the ongoing competition between international powers in West Africa, which has become more evident in the past 5 years after Russia sought to be politically involved in the continent.”

She added that this development “conveys a message to Washington that Moscow will replace Western powers, especially the US and France, in West Africa.” This raises the chances of friction between both sides on multiple fronts, and “will be reflected in a wider superpower competition, involving the US, Russia and China, where Russia and China are seeking to end unipolarity and establish a multipolar world order,” Dr. Tawfik said.

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