• Thursday, April 18, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

US military operations across the Sahel at risk as Niger’s junta cuts cooperation

us-army-trains-SEPTIN911

The United States assessed the future of its counterterrorism operations in the Sahel Sunday after Niger’s junta said it was ending longstanding military cooperation with Washington following a visit by top U.S. officials.

The US used its base in Niger to monitor regional jihadist activity.

This latest announcement by the junta, in power since last July, comes as it moves closer to Russia and after French troops were kicked out in December.

Top U.S. envoy Molly Phee returned to the capital, Niamey, last week to meet with senior government officials, accompanied by Michael Langley, head of the U.S. military’s African Command. She had previously visited in December, while acting deputy secretary of State Victoria Nuland travelled to the country in August, the Associated Press reported.

The State Department said Sunday in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that talks were frank and that it was in touch with the junta. It wasn’t clear whether the U.S. has any leeway left to negotiate a deal to stay in the country.

Niger, previously viewed as a key partner in the fight against regional instability caused by jihadist activity, saw a drastic change in its political landscape when mutinous soldiers ousted the democratically elected president last year.

The joint US-French efforts, which included over 2,500 military personnel, have been crucial in providing military assistance and training to combat the rising threat of terrorism.

However, the dynamics shifted after the junta’s rise to power and the subsequent expulsion of French forces. Jihadist activity in the Sahel has not only destabilized Niger but also led to coups in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.

To address this, the three countries have formed a military alliance. The junta’s decision to suspend military ties with the US raises questions about the future of security cooperation in the region.

A spokesperson for the junta cited recent US flights over Niger’s territory as illegal, adding to the strained relations. US efforts to pressure the junta to distance itself from Russia seem to have backfired, highlighting the diminishing leverage of the US in the region.

The recent visit by top US envoys coinciding with the start of Ramadan was met with a refusal from the junta leader to meet, indicating the growing tensions.

As the US re-evaluates its diplomatic strategies in Niger and the Sahel, experts emphasize the need for a comprehensive approach to address the evolving security challenges in the region.

This development underscores the complexities of international relations and the impact on counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel.

Cameron Hudson, who served with the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department in Africa, said the incident shows the diminution of U.S. leverage in the region and that Niger was angered by Washington’s attempt to pressure the junta to steer clear of Russia. “This is ironic since one mantra of the Biden Administration has been that Africans are free to choose their partners,” he said.

The U.S. delegation visit coincided with the start of Ramadan, a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and intense prayer for Muslims. Niger’s junta leader, Abdourahmane Tchiani, refused to meet them. A U.S. press conference at the embassy in Niger was equally cancelled.

The junta spokesperson, speaking on state television, said junta leaders met the U.S. delegation only out of courtesy and described their tone as condescending.

Aneliese Bernard, a former U.S. State Department official who specialized in African affairs and director of Strategic Stabilization Advisors, a risk advisory group, said the recent visit had failed and the U.S. needs to take a critical look at how it’s doing diplomacy not just in Niger but in the whole region.

“What’s going on in Niger and the Sahel cannot be looked at continuously in a vacuum as we always do,” she said. “The United States government tends to operate with blinders on. We can’t deny that our deteriorating relationships in other parts of the world: the Gulf, Israel and others, all have an influential impact on our bilateral relations in countries in West Africa,” Bernard noted.