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Defying Niger exit order leaves U.S. troops vulnerable, whistleblower says

A senior U.S. Air Force leader deployed in Niger is raising an alarm over the Biden administration’s reluctance to heed an eviction notice from the military junta that last year overthrew the West African nation’s democratically elected government.

The airman, in a private whistleblower complaint to Congress obtained by The Washington Post, accused top officials at the U.S. Embassy in Niger’s capital of Niamey of having “intentionally suppressed intelligence” as they seek to maintain the “facade of a great country-to-country relationship.” The embassy’s actions, the whistleblower wrote, have “potential implications” for U.S. relations with other African nations “and the safety of our personnel in the region.”

The State Department and Defense Department rejected the claims of negligence, saying the United States is making a final push to maintain a U.S. military presence in post-coup Niger, though they acknowledge that talks are difficult and may fail to produce an agreement.

The whistleblower complaint was transmitted to Capitol Hill before U.S. officials met Wednesday with Niger’s prime minister. Follow-on discussions with other senior Nigerien officials were scheduled for next week — talks that may seal the fate of Washington’s relationship with what had been its chief security partner in a region beset by violence from groups linked to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

“There’s a very narrow path here to finding an accommodation that addresses their interests and concerns and our interests and concerns,” said a senior State Department official, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts. “It may not work, but the fat lady hasn’t sung yet.”

U.S. military whistleblower warns troops in Niger are vulnerable

View the Whistleblower’s private complaint to Congress

The whistleblower’s allegations highlight the difficulties for the United States in operating in a region of Africa that is increasingly unstable. In 2017, four American soldiers were killed after being ambushed on a mission in Niger, which military investigators blamed on poor training, planning and other institutional failures.

For years, the Pentagon has deployed a mix of mostly Air Force and Army personnel to Niger to support a mission scrutinizing militant groups in the region. Until the coup, the arrangement included drones flying in counterterrorism operations from a base the United States built and U.S. and Nigerien troops partnering on some patrols.

Niger’s military junta last month declared the U.S. military presence there “illegal” and said that it was ending all accords, effective immediately. That announcement followed tense meetings with top officials from the State Department and the Pentagon, whom Nigerien leaders accused of attempting to dictate that the West African nation have no relationship with Iran, Russia or other U.S. adversaries.

In his complaint, directed to Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) and other lawmakers, the whistleblower takes aim at Ambassador Kathleen FitzGibbon and Air Force Col. Nora J. Nelson-Richter, the defense attaché posted there, accusing both of jeopardizing the safety of 1,100 American military personnel who are “being held hostage” in Niger while a diplomatic resolution remains elusive.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy referred questions to the State Department in Washington, which denied the whistleblower’s claims. A spokesperson for Johnson’s office declined to comment, saying they don’t discuss possible constituent correspondence.

The complaint reveals new details about the status of U.S. forces in Niger and the restrictions on their ability to swap out personnel. After the coup, the whistleblower wrote, service members were told to “sit and hold” on their bases, leaving them unable either to carry out their counterterrorism mission or return to the United States after their six-month deployment reached its scheduled conclusion.

“They failed to be transparent with U.S. service members deployed to this country,” the airman wrote of the embassy’s top officials, adding that while they “gave a pretense that ‘things were being worked,’ ” required permissions to fly U.S. military aircraft in Nigerien airspace were purposely “not being approved by the country’s military government as a political bargaining chip to entice the U.S. government back to negotiate their withdrawal.”

Reached by phone, the whistleblower declined to comment, citing a fear of professional reprisal and safety concerns. The Post verified the individual’s name, rank and assignment, but generally does not identify whistleblowers who make protected communications to Congress.

Senior U.S. officials said they sympathized with concerns posed by personnel who have been unable to carry out their duties since last summer’s coup, but they rejected the whistleblower’s claim that embassy leaders had suppressed intelligence or put U.S. troops at risk.

“No one is suppressing any information: We’re seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s feeding into the deliberative process,” said the senior State Department official. “To this person, it might be slow.”

Gen. Michael Langley, who oversees U.S. military activity in Africa, confirmed in a statement to The Post that some diplomatic clearances for military flights recently have been denied, extending the deployments of U.S. troops in some cases. Senior leaders in his headquarters, he said, are working closely with the State Department and other organizations to make sure that U.S. forces deployed in Niger have what they need.

While the Defense Department “paused” numerous activities in Niger following the coup in July, Langley said, “we greatly value and appreciate the U.S. forces deployed to the region, who continue to enable the [Defense Department] to monitor for potential threats throughout the Sahel in order to protect U.S. personnel, assets and interests, including the welfare of our partners.”

A U.S. defense official said that some units have rotated in and out of Niger since the coup, while other deployments have been extended.

“But this is not uncommon,” the defense official said, “particularly in distant locations.”

When asked during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday about the halting of flights into Niger, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Randy A. George said he was aware it was an issue.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who said at the hearing that he’s spoken to a half-dozen U.S. personnel serving in Niger, criticized George and his civilian counterpart, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, for not taking the situation more seriously.

“We have Army soldiers right now in Niger who aren’t getting their troop rotations, who aren’t getting their medicine, who aren’t getting their supplies, who aren’t getting their mail and the two senior people in the United States Army are sitting before me and it’s like ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,’” said Gaetz.

Gaetz accused government officials of delaying the inevitable departure of U.S. forces from Niger to spare the Biden administration the embarrassment of having to close facilities that cost the United States hundreds of millions of dollars to build only recently — a charge officials denied.

U.S. officials have said they are examining the possibility of having a similar mission run from another West African country, but no specifics have been disclosed.

The whistleblower is deployed at Air Base 101 in Niamey. For months following the coup, senior Pentagon officials have said that U.S. troops are consolidating from the base in Niamey to another installation, Air Base 201, outside the Nigerien city of Agadez. U.S. troops are still in both locations, with the majority at 201, defense officials said.

The facility outside Agadez was conceived in 2013 and completed in 2019, according to a Defense Department inspector general report published in 2020 that cited the project for mismanagement and cost overruns. The base cost at least $100 million to build, the report said, underscoring the long-term investment the Pentagon made in Niger.

The fate of the U.S. military presence has been uncertain since Nigerien military officers ousted the country’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, last summer.

The United States paused its security cooperation with Niger, limiting U.S. activities — including unarmed drone flights — to protection of American personnel. The Sahel region, including neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, has become a global hot spot for Islamic extremism in recent years, and Niger saw such attacks spike dramatically following the coup.

Efforts by top American officials to convince Niger to get back on a democratic pathway so that U.S. assistance could resume have appeared to make little headway. Bazoum remains detained, and no timeline has been set for elections, despite repeated requests from American officials.

Then last month, a U.S. delegation visited Niamey. It included Langley, Molly Phee, the State Department’s top official for African affairs, and Celeste Wallander, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

In a statement read on live television in mid-March, junta spokesman Amadou Abdramane accused that American delegation of condescension and emphasized Niger’s right to choose its own partners. The junta has not publicly changed its position since then.

Last week, at least 100 Russian military instructors arrived in Niamey, marking an escalation of Niger’s security relationship with Moscow that analysts said could make it difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to continue its own security cooperation. Reports on Nigerien state television said that the Russian instructors would be providing training and equipment — specifically an air defense system — to Niger.

Among Nigeriens, there has been a growing sense of resentment toward the American presence since the junta’s announcement last month, an issue that Langley, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month, attributed in part to Russian disinformation.

This past weekend, hundreds of protesters gathered in Niamey in what was a largely peaceful demonstration, chanting and waving signs as they called on the American troops to leave.

Chason reported from Dakar, Senegal.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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