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Biden’s Latest Policy Failure: West Africa

Newsweek – While the Biden administration’s feckless foreign policy team continues to flounder in the Middle East, in sub-Saharan Africa it has invited humiliations of historic proportions. In March, the government of Niger, a military junta that overthrew that country’s democratic government in July 2023, demanded that the United States remove its troop presence, which consists of 1,100 Army and Air Force personnel mostly stationed at a $110 million base built just six years ago.

Last-minute diplomatic attempts to reverse Niger’s decision failed. On April 19, Biden’s State Department acknowledged that the decision was final and that the withdrawal will be faithfully carried out. Just before the final agreement was reached, neighboring Chad demanded that a smaller but significant deployment of U.S. forces in that country leave, and threatened to cancel a standing agreement governing U.S. deployments there.

Until Niger changed governments last year, American military personnel in the country had engaged in successful anti-terrorism operations via drone deployments and joint patrols with the Nigerien armed forces. After the July revolt, however, the Biden administration suspended much of the U.S. military cooperation, citing Niger’s lack of democratic government. Last October, the State Department provocatively declared the change in government a “coup.” Under U.S. policy, this measure required the full suspension of all U.S. military operations in the country, except for self-defense, and resulted in a $500 million reduction in non-humanitarian foreign aid. The State Department also affirmed that its highest objective is the restoration of Niger’s democratic government, presumably over counterterrorism operations.

That sat poorly with the junta, which responded by declaring the U.S. military presence “illegal” and demanding its withdrawal. Its decision has been supported by popular protests in Niger’s capital, Niamey. Earlier, the junta had expelled a French deployment of about 1,500 troops, as well as the French ambassador, citing France’s colonial past in the country. French forces and diplomatic representatives in Mali and Burkina Faso have also been expelled in recent years.

The 1,100 U.S. personnel in Niger have idled for months, even as the country and the larger Sahel region—where six other national governments have been overthrown in the last three and a half years—have become increasingly destabilized and dangerous. Niger has rejected or not responded to requests for military overflights that would allow U.S. personnel in the country to leave or new personnel to arrive. Attacks by ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates in Niger increased fourfold in the month after the July coup alone, in the absence of the joint U.S.-Nigerien military efforts.

“The Americans deployed here have not been able to perform their primary mission and have been told to ‘sit and hold,'” wrote an anonymous serviceman stationed in Niger in a whistleblower letter to Congress published by the Washington Post last month. Referring to the prolonged diplomacy and lack of flight clearances, the whistleblower added that U.S. servicemen “are essentially being held hostage from returning home to their families while the State Department continues with failed diplomacy.” The author specifically blamed U.S. Ambassador Kathleen FitzGibbon and her defense attaché, Colonel Nora J. Nelson-Richter, for having allegedly “suppressed intelligence information” and “failed to be transparent” with U.S. personnel in Niger, potentially leaving them exposed to serious danger.

The rot goes much higher, however. “The administration’s distracted, sputtering performance in Africa is having painful consequences for our priorities,” says Alberto Fernandez, a retired U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Equatorial Guinea and is currently vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute.

As terrorist forces revive, national governments in West Africa are looking to Russia to fill the gap. Unlike Washington under Biden, Moscow takes no position on the nature of national governments and does not predicate military cooperation on democracy.

While Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group has operated in Africa since 2017, its deployments to the Sahel have increased since Biden entered office, recently replacing the French in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Even before the departure of U.S. troops from Chad and Niger, the governments of those countries began inviting the Russians in—”taking advantage,” as former U.S. special envoy to the Sahel J. Peter Pham told me, “of an opening creating by the Biden administration’s ham-fisted approach.”

According to Chadian media, 130 Wagner mercenaries arrived in that country in late April. Last week, an unspecified number of Russian troops arrived in Niger, ostensibly for “training” purposes. In a bizarre changing of the guard, they are being housed alongside, but separately from, American servicemen at a soon-to-be-former U.S. airbase adjacent to Niamey’s airport.

Worrying reports also hold that Iranian agents are in the country seeking uranium rights in exchange for military exports. Predictably in the current climate, U.S. efforts to stymie the deal have reportedly failed.

U.S. Marine Corps General Michael E. Langley, who commands AFRICOM—headquartered in faraway Stuttgart, Germany—told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that Russia is “trying to take over central Africa as well as the Sahel” at an “accelerated pace.” That’s hard to deny, but the acceleration comes courtesy of Joseph R. Biden and his execrable foreign policy team.

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