The government of Niger has given the Defense Department permission to fly armed drones out of the Nigerien capital, Niamey, Pentagon officials said Thursday, in a major expansion of the American military’s footprint in Africa.
Pentagon officials want to start the flights within days.
A memorandum of understanding between the United States and Niger, which was finalized this week, calls for the remotely piloted aircraft to be armed initially, by the military’s Africa Command, at the Nigerien air base in Niamey where they are currently deployed without arms.
The drones, the memo says, will eventually be moved to a Nigerien air base in Agadez, where American troops will also be deployed. Pentagon officials said the new mission would significantly increase the number of American troops in Niger, from the 800 who are there now.
“This operation supports the long-term strategic partnership between the United States and Niger, as well as the ongoing effort to counter violent extremism throughout the region,” the Defense Department said in an emailed statement in response to a query from The New York Times.
The Pentagon has been trying for two years to get permission from the Nigerien government to put precision-guided bombs and missiles on a fleet of Reapers to be flown out of Niamey. Pentagon officials say that the drones would expand the military’s ability to go after extremists in West Africa, in an area that could stretch from Niger to Chad, and Nigeria to southern Libya.
Such an area of operations for the drones would allow the military to target fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram and the Islamic State, officials said.
While the United States has been able to reach Yemeni, Somali and Libyan targets from bases in Djibouti and southern Italy, its reach in West Africa has been more limited.
The Niger deployment would be only the second time that armed drones have been stationed and used in Africa. Drones now based in Djibouti are used in Yemen and Somalia, where there have been 30 strikes this year against Shabab and Islamic State targets. Drones used in Libya fly from Italy.
“This is long overdue,” said Donald C. Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general who until last June was the top American Special Operations commander in Africa. “This will allow us to be more effective against the threat there.”
Mr. Bolduc, who said he had advocated armed American drones in Niger for the past four years, cautioned that drone strikes alone were not a “panacea” against militant groups, and that they needed to be combined in a broader “whole of society approach” to defeat terrorist organizations like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda.
For two years, the Defense Department had been pushing both the Nigerien government and officials at the State Department to move forward on the Pentagon proposal to arm the drones.
But officials at the State Department expressed concern about the big increase in personnel that would be required in Niger. Hundreds of additional service members would be needed to support and operate the weapons.
In addition, government officials in Niger expressed initial hesitance because it is a major step for any government to allow armed drone flights over their country.
The action follows a deadly ambush on Oct. 4 of an Army Special Forces team and 30 Nigerien troops, which resulted in a two-hour firefight outside the village of Tongo Tongo near the Malian border. Four Americans and four Nigeriens were killed, and two Americans and six Nigeriens were wounded.
That ambush, and the aftermath, quickly altered the political calculation, both in Niger and in Washington.
One State Department official said in an interview that in arming the drones out of Niger, the United States would run the risk of more accidental civilian casualties. Already this week, Africa Command has been pushing back against allegations from residents and government officials in Somalia that civilians were killed in a joint raid by American and Somali troops on the village of Bariire in August.
In a statement on Wednesday, Africa Command said that the military had not killed any civilians when it accompanied Somali forces on the raid, and described all of the dead as “enemy combatants.”
Source: The New York Times
Photo: A Reaper drone at a French military base in Niamey, Niger, in October. Credit Benoit Tessier/Reuters