US Forces Withdraw From Niger

The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) recently confirmed the start of US forces’ withdrawal from Niger, marking a significant shift in American military presence in the region. The first C-17 Globemaster III aircraft departed from Air Base 101 in Niamey on 7 June 2024, signifying a pivotal moment in the broader context of US strategy in the Sahel and West Africa.

For over a decade, Niger has been a critical hub for US military operations aimed at counterterrorism and regional stability. The withdrawal represents a significant change in US policy, reflecting both evolving strategic priorities and the complex dynamics of regional security. The decision to withdraw comes amidst ongoing instability in the Sahel region, where militant groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State affiliates continue to pose significant threats.

The withdrawal also highlights the shifting allegiance of the putschists in Niger, who, since sacking democratic President Mohamed Bazoum last year, have aligned militarily with Russia.

US authorities, however, said the withdrawal of US forces is being done in cooperation with Nigerien authorities.

AFRICOM’s press release highlights the “productive cooperation between the US and Nigerien forces” through the Joint Disengagement Commission. This collaboration is essential for ensuring an orderly and secure withdrawal, which is slated for completion by 15 September 2024.

However, the withdrawal raises questions about the future of US engagement in the region and its implications for both Niger and broader West African security.

The departure of the first C-17 signifies not just logistical prowess but also the complex coordination required for such an operation, officials said.

The US Africa Command Director of Strategy, Engagement, and Programs, Kenneth Ekman, a US Air Force Major General, lauded the professionalism of US service members, noting, “The US service members I have met here continue to impress me with their professionalism and commitment to their mission despite the unique set of challenges they have faced over the last few months.”

The transition from planning to execution underscores the extensive preparations undertaken by the US Department of Defense, officials said. A small contingent of US personnel has been deployed to Niger to provide logistical support, ensuring a smooth withdrawal of remaining forces and assets from Air Bases 101 and 201. This planning is crucial to avoid any potential security vacuum that militant groups could exploit.

The Nigerien Ministry of National Defense has emphasised its commitment to protecting and securing American forces throughout the withdrawal process. This assurance is vital given the precarious security environment in the Sahel. The collaboration between US and Nigerien officials aims to mitigate any negative impacts of the withdrawal on local and regional stability.

However, the broader implications of the US withdrawal are multifaceted. While the withdrawal may be seen as a response to changing priorities and resource allocations, it also raises concerns about the ability of local forces to manage security challenges independently. The presence of US forces has been a deterrent to militant activities, and their absence could embolden insurgent groups.

The withdrawal also highlights the shifting allegiance of the putschists in Niger, who, since sacking democratic President Mohamed Bazoum last year, have aligned militarily with Russia. Before the withdrawal of US forces, French forces were also made to withdraw from Niger by the putschists.

“We are encouraged by this transition from planning to execution,” Mr Ekman said, suggesting that the US remains committed to its objectives in Africa, albeit through different methods.

Moreover, the US could increase its diplomatic and developmental efforts to address the root causes of instability in the Sahel. By focusing on governance, economic development, and human rights, the US can contribute to long-term stability in the region.

The departure of the first C-17 from Niger marks a significant moment in US military strategy in West Africa. While the withdrawal presents operational challenges and potential security risks, it also offers an opportunity for strategic realignment. The future of US engagement in Niger and the broader Sahel region and West Africa will likely involve a combination of military, diplomatic, and developmental approaches aimed at promoting stability and addressing the underlying causes of conflict. As the US navigates this transition, the commitment to a safe and orderly withdrawal remains paramount, ensuring that the region does not descend into further chaos amidst the changing landscape of international engagement.

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