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As part of a worldwide shift toward potential confrontation with Russia and China, the Pentagon is weighing a drawdown in Africa — including "abandoning" a $110 million base in Niger that only began operating in November, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
The decision is part of an effort to reorient toward so-called great-power competition, outlined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. A determination on U.S. forces in Africa is expected in January, according to The Times.
The effort could eventually affect most U.S. military operations around the world, including expected drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and an "overhaul" of U.S. deployments to Latin America.
Nigerien Air Base 201, located near Agadez on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, was supposed to open in 2018, but bad weather and harsh conditions pushed that to November.
The air base is only one part of U.S. counter-terror operations in Africa, but it is also one of the newest and, according to U.S. officials, was the largest Air Force-led construction project in history.
US Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel Peterson marshaling the first C-130 to take off at Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, on August 3.(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Devin Boyer)
The facility was built "from scratch" for Nigerien and U.S. aircraft to use, both armed and unarmed. Nigeriens were also employed for day-to-day jobs at the base.
"The US military is at Nigerien Air Base 201 at the request of the Government of Niger," US Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head US Africa Command, said in a release. "We are working with our African and international partners to counter security threats in West Africa. The construction of this base demonstrates our investment in our African partners and mutual security interests in the region."
Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations to counter extremist groups in the region began in early November, US Africa Command said.
'Closely held' planning that US lawmakers and military officials will likely push back on
U.S. forces have been in West Africa to train partner forces to fight local groups like Boko Haram and offshoots of Al Qaeda and ISIS for some time. Four U.S. Army Green Berets were killed in an ambush during a mission against an ISIS group leader in Niger in 2017.
Discussions about shifting away from nearly two decades of counter-terrorism operations there and in other regions are not new, either.
U.S. and Nigerien flags at the base camp for air forces and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, on April 16, 2018. (Associated Press/Carley Petesch)
An Africa Command official told Air Force Times late last year that such a shift would likely not affect operations at Air Base 201, as the plan in West Africa was to "decrease emphasis tactical level advice and assistance and move to a more strategic approach" that focused "more heavily on advising, assisting, liaising and sharing intelligence at key nodes throughout the region."
But current planning to pull back from West Africa has been "closely held" by the Pentagon, according to The Times, which said Congress has not been consulted.
The team led by Defense Secretary Mark Esper has questioned the value of those West African operations and believes the U.S. should reduce its efforts against groups that haven't shown the capacity or desire to attack the U.S., which describes groups in West Africa, according to The Times.
U.S. lawmakers and military officials and allies are expected to push back against reductions, arguing they could undermine stability in Africa, leading to more migration toward Europe, and open a window for China and Russia to expand their influence.
Russia and China have been active in Africa, too
Russia President Vladimir Putin has nurtured longstanding ties with the continent. He hosted his country's first-ever pan-African summit in October, inviting more than 40 African leaders, many of them from countries Russia has never been close with.
Russia is limited in the financial support it can offer to African countries, focusing instead on energy, resource extraction, and security. The Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, has been active across Africa.
China, by contrast, has spent lavishly on aid, loans, and investment in development projects in the region. As it has elsewhere, that activity has raised concerns about Chinese influence, its effect on governance, and local governments' indebtedness to Beijing.
Africa has also been the site of China's growing military ambitions. Beijing opened its first overseas military outpost in Djibouti in August 2017. That base is located near the U.S.'s largest base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, and US military officials and lawmakers have warned about Chinese activity in the area.
Concern about what Russia and China may do in Africa is unlikely to persuade those who have argued for more restrained use of U.S. power and resources abroad.
"As if it could be bad for us to keep bases in West Africa but bountiful for China," Ben Friedman, policy director at advocacy group Defense Priorities, said on Twitter in regard to the Pentagon deliberations outlined by The Times.
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