After Niger Coup, U.S. Scrambles to Keep a Vital Air Base

After Niger Coup, U.S. Scrambles to Keep a Vital Air Base

On a barren swath of land in the Sahara, U.S. Air Base 201 stands far from public sight, on the outskirts of a remote city in one of the world’s poorest countries, its role more elusive than ever since its completion nearly six years ago.

Most of the drones that once monitored jihadist activities in volatile African countries have been grounded. Most of the Americans posted at the $110 million base, near the city, Agadez, Niger, sit idle, epitomizing the uncertain future of the United States’ counterterrorism efforts in West Africa: difficult to abandon, even as business as usual is, for now, out of the question.

After a military coup in Niger in July, the United States and its European partners halted their cooperation with the country, which over the past decade had become one of the biggest recipients of security assistance and development aid in Africa.

As the ruling Nigerien junta consolidates its grip on power, the Biden administration now faces wrenching new challenges in its fight against Islamist militants in Africa. Chief among them is how to resume operations at U.S. Air Base 201 — the top military asset in a region that is emerging as a global center of terrorist activity.

Having labeled the takeover a coup, the United States is required by law to suspend security operations and development aid to Niger, and cannot fully resume them until democracy is restored. So while American officials have signaled that they would like to re-establish security cooperation with Niger’s government, doing so with the former Nigerien president, Mohamed Bazoum, under house arrest will require their threading a diplomatic needle.

Further complicating matters for Washington, European countries that invested hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and sent thousands of troops to Niger are divided on what to do next.

The European Union has suspended aid, and, at the request of Niger, about 2,000 European troops have departed the country in recent months — leaving about 1,000 U.S. personnel as the only sizable Western presence in the country. But several European countries have indicated recently that they are willing to normalize relations with the junta.

Then there is the looming threat of Russia, eager to exploit any breaches in relations between Niger and the Western nations to further expand its regional influence. The Kremlin, which recently signed a new defense agreement with Niger, is already the preferred security partner of two neighboring countries fighting Islamist rebellions, Mali and Burkina Faso. The three countries, all now run by military governments, have vowed to strengthen cooperation under a new security alliance.

“Russia is going to be there no matter what — whether the U.S. is at the table or not,” said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research institution.

A U.S. military official said the Pentagon was discussing establishing new drone bases with several coastal West African countries as backups to the base in Niger, which is landlocked. Talks are still in the early stages, and a lot of details would need to be worked out, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the discussions on Thursday.

The official added that the U.S. military was still determined to hold on to Air Base 201, the largest construction project Air Force engineers have ever undertaken alone, even as the policy in the region is up for discussion in Washington and any decisions have been put off for now because of the crises in Gaza and Ukraine.

However, Aneliese Bernard, a former State Department adviser who worked in Niger in the late 2010s, said talks to move special forces and drone operations out of the country had begun a while ago.

“Once the Niger coup happened, it became, ‘Yep, it’s likely moving to Ghana and Ivory Coast,’” said Ms. Bernard, now the director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a Washington-based risk consultancy, referring to the two coastal West African countries.

With an estimated 11.5 million Nigeriens — 44 percent of the population — living in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank, Niger might have a strong incentive to patch up relations with the United States and Europe to get the aid and security money flowing again, some analysts say.

Attacks by militant groups have increased since the coup, U.S. officials and analysts say, and hundreds of schools remain closed because of the widespread insecurity. Foreign diplomats and humanitarian workers have deserted the country, and economic sanctions imposed by a bloc of West African nations have helped send food prices soaring and kept even humanitarian aid blocked at the border.

While anti-Western sentiment runs high in Niamey, the capital, many Nigeriens elsewhere in the country feel otherwise, especially in Agadez, whose historic center includes the world’s tallest mud-brick mosque and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“We’ve told the central authorities, ‘Don’t kick out the French and the Americans to bring in the Russians,’” said Mohamed Anacko, the president of the council in the Agadez region, which is home to U.S. Air Base 201. “We don’t need new colonizers.”

Many Nigeriens may be comfortable with the United States’ presence, but the two countries have a long way to go. Interactions between the U.S. military and the junta leaders is now limited to periodic phone calls between Gen. Michael Langley, the head of the U.S. Africa Command, and Brig. Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou, the junta’s defense chief, Africa Command officials said.

For now, that leaves Air Base 201, which once served as a broader launchpad for monitoring activities of armed groups in north, west and even Central Africa, in limbo.

The American military is still flying unarmed drone surveillance missions to protect its troops posted in Niamey and Agadez. And under “a duty to warn” obligation, they pass along any serious threats they detect to the Nigeriens.

U.S. diplomats have signaled that they would like to mend relations with the junta and resume security operations at Air Base 201, but how they can accomplish that is still unclear.

The new U.S. ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, one of Washington’s top Africa specialists, recently presented her credentials to the Nigerien government. During a trip to Niger last month — the second since the coup — the State Department’s senior Africa policy official, Molly Phee, said the United States intended to resume security and development cooperation, even as she called for a swift transition to civilian rule and the release of Mr. Bazoum, the ousted president.

But Mr. Bazoum remains under house arrest in the presidential palace in Niamey with his wife and son, cut off from the rest of the world except for occasional visits from a doctor. In theory, the junta could announce a timeline for a transition to civilian rule for the United States to resume some support, but only for the transition, not for security purposes. The generals in power, however, have so far refused to release Mr. Bazoum or to announce a timeline.

Still, some European countries say they are ready to move on, with or without Mr. Bazoum. In meetings last month with Nigerien officials in Niamey, the German defense minister vowed to resume cooperation in 2024. Other countries, like Italy and Spain, are also willing to engage with the junta — moving away from France, increasingly isolated in its uncompromising stance toward the country’s military leaders.

For now, though, a decade of Western efforts to strengthen governance in Niger have been suspended indefinitely, diplomats and analysts say, and many doubt whether the breach can be repaired. “End of a love story,” one European security official said on the condition of anonymity to speak openly of developments in Niger.

Yet, Ms. Bernard, the former State Department adviser, said the equation was a little different for the United States because of U.S. Air Base 201.

“In the coastal countries, they would have to start from scratch,” she said, referring to the recent reports that the United States was considering building new bases there, “while the base in Agadez was the biggest investment in U.S. military history. I don’t see us moving away from it.”