Washington has secured an agreement with the government of Niger to establish a US military base in the Northwest African country, which borders Mali. The agreement comes in the midst of the French intervention in Mali, employing ground troops and warplanes.
The deal, first reported Monday by the New York Times, citing unnamed US officials, would clear the way for the Pentagon to set up a base for drone flights over the entire region.
While US officials and the media have placed the base agreement in the context of the French war in Mali, it is evident that Washington had been negotiating with the Niger government well before the advance of Islamist militias toward southern Mali triggered the French intervention on January 11. It appears more the case that the recent Mali events have served as a pretext for an already planned US militarization of the region.
For several months there has been a drumbeat in the media and official circles about Africa being the "new front" in the war on terror, along with reports that AFRICOM (Africa Command), the US military command set up for operations in Africa, was seeking to establish bases on the continent and deploy for the first time a combat brigade on African soil.
The deal reached with the Niger government is a status of forces agreement of the kind demanded by the Pentagon wherever US forces are deployed. It grants blanket immunity to American troops for any crimes committed on the country's soil.
According to the Times, it is anticipated that some 300 US troops and private contractors will be stationed at the Niger base. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that there are already some 50 US military personnel deployed in Niger.
The US had previously set up drone bases in Ethiopia and Djibouti, the tiny semi-colonial African territory at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, where the US and France jointly operate Camp Lemonnier, the site of a 2,000-member American special operations task force. These bases, together with secret air fields in the Arab peninsula, have been used to carry out drone missile strikes and assassinations in Somalia and Yemen. However, they are some 3,000 miles away from Mali.
Washington has also deployed turboprop spy planes flying from secret fields in Burkina Faso and Mauritania, as the Washington Post reported last year, based on secret US diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks as well as military contracting documents. US officials, however, have reported that these spy flights have proven less than effective in terms of intelligence gathering over Mali and other parts of Northwest Africa.
"For now, officials say they envision flying only unarmed surveillance drones from the [Niger] base, though they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens," the Times reported Tuesday.
This seems hardly credible. While drones may well be used to collect intelligence on potential targets that would be handed off to the French for execution, there is little doubt that the Obama administration intends to spread its drone killing spree to Northwest Africa.
This was implicitly threatened by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta following the hostage siege at the gas facility in Algeria earlier this month. "We have a responsibility to go after Al Qaeda wherever they are," Panetta stated, adding that the US was "going after" it in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia--all the scene of continuous drone missile strikes--and would act to deny Al Qaeda a "a base for operations in North Africa and Mali."
As the Wall Street Journal noted, the moves toward a permanent base in Niger "show the extent to which the US and France are girding for what could be an open-ended campaign against the militants in North and West Africa."
Indeed, one of the top US State Department officials in charge of Africa warned Monday that the present offensive in Mali "could take years."
"This is only the first phase," Don Yamamoto, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the Associated Press. "I think people should not be into the illusion that it is going to be quick," he added. "It's going to take a long time and time means that it could take several years " you got do it right."
Yamamoto noted that Washington has already begun training and equipping troops from Niger, Chad, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo and will transport them to Mali for use in an African proxy force. AFRICOM has also announced that it is backing the French intervention by providing military transport planes to move French troops and weaponry and by flying refueling missions for French warplanes.
The US State Department official also told the AP the following: "A lot of the rebel groups that are now fighting in the region were under Gaddafi's troops. They were trained for over a decade. You have rebel groups that are well trained and well armed and very aggressive. And so if you have any problems in governance in the country, that would allow these extremist groups to come and that's what happened in Mali."