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Drone base in Niger widens a murky US war

AIR BASE 201, Niger — Rising from a barren stretch of African scrubland, a half-finished drone base represents the newest front line in the United States’ global shadow war.

At its center, hundreds of Air Force personnel are feverishly working to complete a $110 million airfield that, when finished in the coming months, will be used to stalk or strike extremists deep into West and North Africa, a region where most Americans have no idea the country is fighting.

Near the nascent runway, Army Green Berets are training Niger forces to carry out counterterrorism raids or fend off an enemy ambush — like the one that killed four US soldiers near the Mali border last fall.

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Taken together, these parallel missions reflect a largely undeclared US military buildup outside the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, often with murky authorities and little public attention, unfolding in remote places like Yemen, Somalia, and, increasingly, West Africa.

In Niger alone, the Pentagon in the past few years has doubled the number of US troops, to about 800 — not to conduct unilateral combat missions, but to battle an increasingly dangerous Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and even loosely associated extremist groups with proxy forces and drone strikes.

The military’s missions in Niger are expected to come under scrutiny in a long-awaited Defense Department investigation into the deadly Oct. 4 ambush that is nearing release.

“The base, and the more frequent flights that its opening will allow, will give us far more situational awareness and intelligence on a region that has been a hub of illicit and extremist activity,” said P.W. Singer, a strategist at New America in Washington who has written extensively about drones.

“But it will also further involve us in yet more operations and fights that few Americans are even aware our military is in,” Singer said.

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Questions about whether the US military, under the Trump administration, is seeking to obscure the expanding scope of operations in Africa surfaced last month, when it was revealed that the United States had carried out four airstrikes in Libya between September and January that the military’s Africa Command had failed to disclose at the time.

Soon after, the military acknowledged for the first time that Green Berets working with Niger forces had killed 11 Islamic State militants in a multiday firefight in December. No American or Niger forces were harmed in that gun battle.

But the combat — along with at least 10 other previously unreported attacks on US troops in West Africa between 2015 and 2017 — underscored the fact that the deadly ambush in Niger was not an isolated episode.

Niger forces and their American advisers are preparing other major operations to clear out militants, military officials say.

“It’s essential that the American public is aware of, engaged in, and decides whether or not to support American military operations in countries around the world, including Niger,” said Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who visited Niger with four other senators this month.

Six months after the fatal attack, which took place outside the village of Tongo Tongo near the Mali border, the Trump administration stands at a critical crossroad in the military’s global counterterrorism campaign.

One path would push ahead with President Trump’s campaign vow to defeat the Islamic State and other violent extremist organizations, not just in Iraq and Syria, but worldwide.

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The other would be to pull out and leave more of the fighting to allies, as Trump said he wants to do in Syria, possibly ceding hard-fought ground to militants.

During a counterterrorism exercise this past week in north-central Niger that drew nearly 2,000 military personnel from 20 African and Western countries, many officers voiced concerns that the United States’ commitment in West Africa could fall victim to the latter impulse.

“It’s important to still have support from the US to help train my men, to help with our shortfalls,” said Colonel Major Moussa Salaou Barmou, commander of Niger’s 2,000 Special Operations forces, who trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and the National Defense University in Washington.

In an interview on the sidelines of the exercise, Major General J. Marcus Hicks, head of US Special Operations forces in Africa, put it this way: “This is an insurance policy that’s very inexpensive, and I think we need to keep paying into it.”

Where American and Niger officials see enhanced security in drone operations — for surveillance, strikes, or protecting Special Forces patrols — others fear a potentially destabilizing effect that could hand valuable recruiting propaganda to an array of groups aligned with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and that could increase the militants’ menace.

“Eliminating jihadi military leaders through drone operations could temporarily disorganize insurgent groups,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, deputy director of the International Crisis Group’s West Africa project in Dakar, Senegal.

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“But eventually the void could also lead to the rise of new and younger leaders who are likely to engage into more violent and spectacular operations to assert their leadership.”

A rare visit this month to Air Base 201, the largest construction project that Air Force engineers have ever undertaken alone, revealed several challenges.

Commanders grapple with swirling dust storms, scorching temperatures, and lengthy spare-part deliveries to fix broken equipment. All have conspired to put the project more than a year behind schedule and $22 million over its original budget.

Niger’s government approved Air Base 201 in 2014. Last November, a month after the deadly ambush, the government of Niger gave the Defense Department permission to fly armed drones out of Niamey, a major expansion of the US military’s firepower in Africa.

American and Niger officers here refused to discuss armed operations.

But a Defense Department official acknowledged that the military in January started flying armed missions from Niamey, 500 miles southwest of the base, including the deadly strike in southern Libya last month.