Officials of the West African nation of Niger have announced they would allow the Pentagon to operate armed drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), out of the country’s capital, Niamey.
The drones will conduct strikes on terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and its affiliates that operate along the country’s border with Mali. The move would allow the US military to significantly expand its reach in West Africa.
Administrations as far back as George W. Bush have launched bombing campaigns in Africa that claimed thousands of innocent lives but these failed to show a tangible reduction in terrorism.
The new mission will significantly increase the number of American troops in Niger, from the 800 who are there now.
“We’re in the very early stages right now of establishing a presence in the area, but one day this once empty desert will be a fully functioning flight line,” said 1st Lt. Danielle Tabb, a civil engineer on the Agadez project, speaking to the military news site Stars and Stripes.
Construction on the new $100 million drone facility in the city Agadez is underway and Niger has emerged as the main hub for U.S. operations directed against extremists such as Boko Haram, assorted al-Qaida affiliates and Islamic State militants. The Agadez base is projected to be “the biggest military labor troop project in U.S. Air Force history”.
But the prospect of a major U.S. hub to fight terror has some locals in Niger worried. “It’s a magnet for the terrorists,” Anastafidan el Souleymane Mohamed, a tribal elder in Agadez, told The Washington Post.
Soldiers interviewed by Stars and Stripes also shared concerns over the much tougher terrain in Africa than one they had just experienced in Afghanistan. In Africa, there are much longer waits for close air support and the expectations for medical evaluation are vastly different from a one hour wait to a 48 hour delay.
The sheer vastness of the area of operations, combined with the lack of resources when compared with Afghanistan, can be a shock to special operators used to having drones and strike aircraft available to get a team out of trouble.
A former 3rd Group officer with extensive Afghanistan experience said for special operators who have spent their entire military career fighting in Afghanistan, the adjustment to Africa can be jarring.