Is The New U.S. Drone Base in Niger Worth The Cost?

By Akhilesh Pillalamarri

For decades, large parts of Africa have been home to local radicals and militants. But these local radicals do not present a direct threat to U.S. national security, so does their mere existence justify the construction of a new drone base that has a price tag of $100 million? The cost of operating the facility, located in the middle of the Sahara Desert in Agadez, Niger, is estimated to run to $30 million a year. By the end of the 10-year agreement for the use of the site in 2024, named Nigerien Air Base 201, the U.S. will have spent around $280 million.

That is $280 million of U.S. taxpayer money that could be spent on domestic infrastructure, border security, and more. Before signing the checks, there should be an open discussion and debate in Congress on the necessity of this facility, or the need for such direct U.S. involvement in the security of Niger, and neighboring countries in the Sahel—the dry strip of land at the southern edge of the Sahara notorious for harboring militants in poorly government spaces. In addition to the base at Agadez, which is run by the U.S. military, the CIA maintains a drone base at Dirkou, in northeastern Niger, close to Libya, though it is not clear to defense analysts why two U.S. bases are needed in such close proximity. Niger’s own interior minister does not seem to know what exactly the U.S. drones in his country are doing.

U.S. involvement in Niger and neighboring Mali dates to 2013, when parts of northern Mali were briefly overrun by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other Islamist militants after hijacking a local ethnic Tuareg rebellion and acquiring weapons from Libya after the fall of Muammar al Gaddafi, an event precipitated by poor U.S. strategizing. While the militants of northern and western Africa are undoubtedly dangerous, they are not a direct threat to the United States, and seek to establish a local regime, hence their focus on the Maghreb (northwest Africa).

Yet, the American presence in the region endured and deepened, with around 800 U.S. Army Green Berets working in Niger by 2017, training Nigerien troops, and constructing Air Base 201. Inevitably, U.S. forces got drawn into skirmishes between the Nigerien government and local militants, and so became targets in their own right. This was made manifestly clear last October when U.S. Special Forces were ambushed in Tonga Tonga, Niger, leading to the deaths of four U.S. soldiers. 

Yet instead of sparking a thorough debate over the presence of U.S. soldiers in Africa, the Tonga Tonga debacle seems to have become a rationalization for an ever greater American footprint in Niger.

American military power does not need to be used to combat every militant, terrorist, and radical in every corner of the world, and should be reserved against only those extremists who are actively planning attacks against the United States and its core allies. By inserting itself into Niger, and other poorly governed spaces in Africa, the United States is inviting attacks against its soldiers by making local problems our problems, a formula for perpetual war in all corners of the global. We are furthermore incentivizing poor governments to persist in failed policies and lackluster governance, because they can outsource their security operations to our military.

In Niger and the rest of the Sahel, France—our ally and partner—is already taking the initiative. Much of the Sahel was previously colonized by France, so it continues to have strong ties with Niger, as well as neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali. It is therefore in a better position politically and diplomatically to conduct successful operations in that part of Africa, because it can use its influence with its African partners to nudge them toward viable settlements with local actors.

The United States does not need to meddle in every part of the world that faces a lack of security, especially if we can count on our friends. Moreover by getting involved in local fights against radicals—most of which can be dealt with by regional powers—we often go looking for trouble. American interests are better served by a more hands-off approach to Niger and the Sahel.

Akhilesh “Akhi“ Pillalamarri is a fellow at Defense Priorities. An international relations analyst, editor, and writer, he studied international security at Georgetown University. Find him on Twitter @akhipill.

This piece was originally published by Defense News on October 16, 2018. Read more HERE.