The U.S. and Niger have reached an agreement allowing American military personnel to be stationed in the West African country to combat terror groups operating in the region, according to U.S. officials.
President Barack Obama’s administration doesn’t intend to send combat troops to Niger, a White House official said. The accord could make it possible for the U.S. to base unmanned surveillance aircraft there, said another U.S. official, adding that no decision has been made to station the drones.
The pact will allow deployment of U.S. personnel as well as other military assets in Niger to respond to the terror threat in neighboring Mali, a U.S. defense official said. The so-called status-of-forces agreement grants immunity from local laws to U.S. personnel stationed in the country.
While the contours of the U.S. military presence are still being worked out, the deal is intended to increase intelligence collection, among other purposes, the defense official said. The officials all asked to not be named in discussing the accord, which has not been announced.
The deal with Niger, which has been in the works for more than a year, is unconditional and not limited to a specific time period, according to the U.S. defense official. The New York Times reported yesterday on the accord and the possibility of deploying drones in the country.
The pact comes after the Pentagon announced an agreement on Jan. 26 to provide aerial refueling support to French troops battling extremists in Mali, including militants operating under the banner of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Together, the accords signal wider U.S. involvement in confronting terror groups in North Africa.
If approved, the base in Niger would likely be to provide surveillance for the French-led operation in Mali, the Times reported. While initially only unarmed drones would fly out of the base, the site may be used for missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens, the newspaper said.
General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. military command in Africa, said the subject was “too operational for me to confirm or deny,” the Times reported, citing an e-mail it received from Ham. The Africa Command’s plan still needs approval from the Pentagon, the White House and officials in Niger, the newspaper reported.
Since the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, which unleashed a flow of weapons to militants in the region, the Obama administration has been torn between wanting to avoid entanglements in the region while warning of the dangers of advancing Islamist extremism.
The U.S. has shown reluctance to provide weapons or American troops to the fight in Mali, just as it has largely sidestepped the civil war in Syria. U.S. officials say that shifting alliances among at least four rebel groups in Mali have made it hard to get a clear picture of the conflict there.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered a brief insight earlier this month into the Obama administration’s internal deliberations when he pointed to legal questions being raised overFrance’s request for U.S. military help.
“I find that every time I turn around, I face a group of lawyers,” Panetta told reporters on Jan. 16 in Rome. The administration’s legal counsel wanted “to be sure that they feel comfortable that we have the legal basis to do what we are being requested to do” in aiding the French, he said.
Those questions were resolved and the U.S. is now providing airlift, intelligence as well as refueling French military planes.
The U.S. couldn’t directly aid Mali’s current government, which was installed through a coup,Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said Jan. 15. She said there were no restrictions on helping allies such as France.
France intervened in Mali on Jan. 11 after Islamist fighters overran the town of Konna, sparking concern they might advance toward Bamako, the capital. The French Defense Ministry said that 2,500 soldiers have arrived in the landlocked West African country, which gained independence from France in 1960. African nations are deploying a force that may total as many as 3,300 troops.
Yesterday, French and Malian forces encircled the historic city of Timbuktu and now hold its airport, Mali’s army spokesman, Colonel Diarran Kone, said by phone from Bamako.
At least 11,000 people have been forced from their homes by the recent fighting, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. About 230,000 have been displaced since the crisis began, the agency said Jan. 22.