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US Military Operations in Sahel imperiled as Niger terminates cooperation

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The future of United States counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel hangs in the balance after Niger’s junta declared the termination of its longstanding military cooperation with Washington. This decision comes swiftly following a high-level visit by top U.S. officials, leaving the U.S. military scrambling to reassess its operations in the region.

The Sahel, situated south of the Sahara Desert, has been a focal point for U.S. counterterrorism efforts, with hundreds of American troops stationed at a crucial airbase in northern Niger. From this base, the U.S. conducts surveillance flights over the expansive Sahel region, where jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State are active.

According to a recent White House report to Congress, as of December, approximately 650 U.S. personnel were deployed in Niger. The base facilitates both manned and unmanned surveillance operations, supporting ground troops in the Sahel. However, joint missions have been curtailed since a tragic incident in 2017 resulted in the deaths of U.S. soldiers during a joint operation in Niger.

The rationale behind the junta’s decision to suspend military ties remains unclear. Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane, spokesperson for the junta, cited recent U.S. flights over Niger’s territory as illegal. In response, local activist Insa Garba Saidou, who aids Niger’s military rulers in communications, criticized U.S. attempts to pressure the junta into choosing between strategic partners.

Following her visit in December, Phee, the top U.S. envoy, expressed optimism about discussions with junta leaders. She urged them to commit to a timeline for elections as a precondition for restoring military and aid ties. However, she also cautioned against Niger forging closer relations with Russia, signaling the geopolitical complexities underlying the situation.

The termination of military cooperation between the U.S. and Niger casts a shadow over efforts to combat terrorism in the Sahel. With U.S. operations potentially hampered, the region faces increased uncertainty in its fight against extremist groups. As diplomatic tensions simmer, the implications for regional stability and security remain to be seen.

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