Naimey, Niger — The Nigerien government has recently approved a memorandum of understanding with the United States for the deployment of U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones armed with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles to the U.S. military airbase within the capital city of Niamey to support the joint U.S.-Nigerien Special Operations counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel region of West Africa.
The decision made by the Nigerien government to finally allow the U.S. to arm their drone air assets comes on the heels of a fatal ambush on U.S. Army Green Berets and their Nigerien counterparts in which four U.S. Special Forces soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army 3rd Special Forces Group were killed during an overwhelming surprise attack perpetrated by the newly formed Islamic State in the Greater Sahara terrorist group that has direct links to the Islamic State caliphate.
Drones over the skies of Niger are nothing new, the U.S. military built a small compound off the main runway of Niamey International Airport and began deploying non-armed Predator drones to the forward operations site in 2013. And since then the U.S. has been trying to pressure the Nigerien government to allow them to arm their drones to conduct airstrikes on known terrorists and their mobile camps.
Something that Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou and his Niger Defence Ministry were resistant to until last month. Niger’s Defence Minister, Kalla Mountari in an interview with Reuters last month indicated that he and Issoufou, “asked them [United States Department of Defense] some weeks ago to arm them [the drones] and use them as needed.” Mountari when asked whether this move will directly benefit the U.S.-Nigerien counter-terrorism mission and if this was a sign that the U.S. is increasing its direct combat advisory role in West Africa he replied, “The Americans are not just exchanging information with us. They are waging war when necessary. We are working hand in hand. The clear proof is that the Americans and Nigeriens fell on the battlefield for the peace and security of our country.”
The armed drones in Naimey are just temporary however as they are only renting space at the international airport. These drones and the now upwards of 500 U.S. personnel are slotted to move to a new drone base 200 miles northeast in Agadez, Niger. The drone base which is still under construction is set to be finished in early 2018 and cost the U.S. over $100 million dollars to build.
Retired General and former commander of U.S. Special Operations Africa (SOCAF), Don Buldoc said in an interview with New York Times:
This is long overdue,” in regards to learning Niger authorizing armed drones however cautioned that drone strikes are not and cannot be the “easy button” in the war on terror yet finished by saying that having armed Reaper drones over the skies of West Africa, “will allow us [U.S. military] to be more effective against the threat there.”
Regardless of how arming drones in a African country that most Americans could not identify on a map let alone the United States having its elite U.S. Army Special Forces fighting and sadly dying in, is beginning to look like “mission creep” on a new American war in Africa.
However, the Green Berets and their Nigerien counterparts on the ground will wholly benefit from having these “angels on their shoulder” as the mission and deployments to West Africa by America’s elite Green Berets are looking to only increase in size and length.
The joint U.S-Nigerien drone strike program will also more than likely pull heavily from the successful U.S. Horn of Africa drone strike program seen in Yemen and Somalia. In which shortly after Somalia’s newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, “Farmaajo” declared “War on Shabaab.” Somalia saw an increase of support from the Trump administration by way of an increase of U.S. airstrikes along with a massive increase of joint U.S.-Somali special operations raids on known al-Shabaab leadership and strongholds.
One thing is for certain, the soldiers of the United States Special Operations Command are now fighting a bloody counter-insurgency on two African fronts as we speak. And according to an announcement by Senate Armed Services Committee senior members, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, shortly after the ambush and death of four U.S. Special Forces soldiers promised more (not less) U.S. Special Operations missions. With Sen. Graham saying, “We don’t want the next 9/11 to come from Niger. The counter-terrorism rules under the Obama administration I thought were overly restrictive. We will in the coming weeks begin to change those restrictive rules of engagement in not only Niger but also across Africa as well.”
Graham also continued on with clarifying the new rules of engagement by stating that U.S. Special Forces advisers will now be authorized to engage any person or group that is a known terrorist or affiliated to a terrorist group. Normally the established rules of engagement for U.S. advisers in Africa were to engage only in self-defense, now U.S. advisers can engage at will on known terrorist targets. Graham, in regards to this new amendment to the current rules of engagement added this, “You will see more aggression from the United States and its forces on the ground in Africa.”
Feature image courtesy of: Associated Press