• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own.
On Feb. 22, President Obama announced in a letter to Congress that he deployed “approximately 100” US military troops to Niamey, Niger to establish a drone base to survey the Sahel and the Sahara. This base, which could eventually host up to 300 US troops, contradicts earlier administration assurances that there would be no US boots on the ground. There has been limited American surveillance of the region before, using light aircraft. However, a drone base dramatically ups the visibility – and the ante.
It is much more significant than the 100 US forces helping east and central African governments try to overcome the Lords’ Resistance Army. The drone base, and the US military and other personnel needed to support it, will be located in one of the poorest countries in the world. “Mission creep” is probably inevitable, not least because the lack of infrastructure will require the Americans to provide high levels of support for their military personnel.
The drone base is likely to get bigger, even if its mission remains surveillance only.
This decision associates the US directly with regional governments that are weak – and in many cases alienated from the people they ostensibly govern. The region is also the venue for frequent military coups. Further, there are no historical ties between the US and the region – unlike France – and there are no significant American interests in the conventional sense.
Why did the administration take this step? Those of us outside the government can only speculate. The French, who are much closer American allies around the world than American popular opinion acknowledges, probably encouraged it. The government of Niger probably welcomed it. The recent spate of kidnappings in the region probably added urgency.
But the fundamental motivation for the drone base appears to be US fear – there is no other word – of the quasi-criminal networks that have adopted the Al Qaeda brand. These groups struggle amongst themselves for control of smuggling routes, and the popular support they have seems to reflect popular alienation from bad governance. They are primarily the product of local circumstances and, up to now, have posed no threat to the United States.
That may change. The drone base associates the US in a highly visible way with the corrupt governments of the region. It will be easy to represent the them as yet another element of the alleged American war against Islam.
Now that there are boots on the ground, it is difficult to foresee an end to the US presence any time soon.