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Pentagon confirms talks to withdraw US troops from Niger

Washington failed to reach a compromise with junta leaders in Niamey, as Russia continues to make gains across the Sahel.
Protesters react as a man holds up a sign demanding that soldiers from the United States Army leave Niger without negotiation during a demonstration in Niamey, on April 13, 2024. Thousands of people demonstrated on April 13, 2024 in Niger's capital Niamey to demand the immediate departure of American soldiers based in northern Niger, after the military regime said it was withdrawing from a 2012 cooperation deal with Washington. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The United States is in talks to withdraw troops from Niger more than a month after the country’s ruling junta ordered American forces to leave, the Pentagon said on Monday.

The Biden administration’s No. 2 top diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, told the junta’s appointed prime minister, Ali Lamine Zeine, on Friday that the two countries would plan for the withdrawal of more than 1,100 US troops in the country.

Pentagon press secretary US Air Force Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder on Monday confirmed that talks had begun with Niamey over “the orderly withdrawal of US forces from the country.”

Defense Department and officers from US Africa Command based in Stuttgart, Germany, were participating in the discussions, military officials said. 

Why it matters: The US military presence at Air Base 201 near Agadez is a linchpin of the Pentagon’s counterterrorism operations in the Sahel, where Islamist jihadi groups have expanded attacks on government forces in recent years. 

The US troop presence is a remaining point of leverage for Washington in Central Africa, as Russia’s paramilitary forces have increasingly made inroads across the region by cutting deals with national governments, offering protection often in exchange for natural resource concessions. 

The Pentagon froze its cooperation with Nigerian troops after a July 2023 coup led by the head of the country’s presidential guard, trimming the US troop presence in the country and consolidating the remaining forces at the Agadez drone base.

Yet the Biden administration opted to keep troops in Niger following the coup. Officials in Washington urged Niger’s junta leaders to reinstate President Mohamed Barzoum while seeking ways to potentially resume military cooperation. “There has been direct contact with military leaders urging them to step aside,” Matthew Miller, the department's spokesperson, said on Aug. 7, less than two weeks after the coup.

At a tense meeting in Niamey in February, the State Department’s top official for Africa, Molly Phee, confronted Nigerian junta officials about their ties with Russia and accused them of allowing Iran to source uranium from the country, prompting junta leaders to revoke the country’s defense agreement with the United States.

Russia and Niger signed a new defense partnership agreement in January, Russian state media reported at the time. Last week, the Kremlin delivered the “latest generation of anti-aircraft defense systems” to the country along with 100 Russian military trainers, Niamey’s state broadcaster RTN claimed. 

String of losses: Following a 2021 coup in neighboring Mali, officials ousted a nine-year French counterterrorism mission after cutting a deal with Russian paramilitary forces for security.

Russia has exploited the expansion of Sunni jihadi groups in the Sahel to strike deals with a series of African governments, often in the wake of coups, some of which have been carried out by national forces previously trained by the US military.

The top US military general overseeing forces in Africa, US Marine Corps Gen. Michael Langley, attributed the Kremlin’s success to its disinformation campaigns on the continent, which he suggested had fueled local unrest and opposition to the United States and its allies.

“That is NATO’s southern flank. We need to be able to maintain access and influence across the Maghreb, all the way from Morocco to Libya,” Langley told Senate lawmakers last month. 

Plan C: Biden administration officials have been seeking alternate bases for drone operations in West African countries in a bid to sustain its intelligence gathering in the region. 

US troops have not begun withdrawing from Niger as a result of the latest discussions, Pentagon officials said Monday. US officials declined to acknowledge any timeline for the withdrawal.