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The US is losing its battle in the Sahel as Chad joins Niger in demanding withdrawal of military personnel

With Russia lurking and diplomatic channels failing, Washington is preparing to redeploy its troops from Nigerien soil while pressure from the Chadian army threatens to end its operations

Vladimir Putin and President of Chad Mahamat Idriss Deby
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chad's interim president, Mahamat Idriss Déby, during a meeting in Moscow in January.Mikhail Metzel (AP)

The Tongo Tongo ambush in Niger on October 4, 2017, in which four U.S. soldiers were killed, sparked a fierce debate in the Donald Trump administration about the presence and size of its contingent in Africa. It was the largest loss of U.S. military personnel on the continent since the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia. Nearly seven years after the slaughter in Niger, perpetrated by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, it is not Washington that is weighing up whether to maintain or withdraw its soldiers; rather, it is the countries in the region themselves that have asked foreign military detachments to pack up and leave. After the military juntas of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger expelled French forces from their territory last year following their rapprochement with Russia, it is now the turn of the U.S.

This week, the authorities in Niger and Joe Biden’s government met to discuss the model and timetable for the withdrawal of the 1,000 U.S. military personnel deployed there. Almost in parallel, the Chadian army has demanded the cessation of U.S. activities at the Adji Kosseï air base, next to the airport of N’Djamena, the country’s capital, just two weeks before the holding of general elections.

Washington’s diplomatic efforts to keep its soldiers in the Sahel do not seem to be bearing fruit. Last Thursday, the country’s ambassador to Niger, Kathleen Fitzgibbon, and General Kenneth Ekman, head of strategy, engagement, and programs at the U.S. Africa Command (Africom), held a meeting in Niamey, Niger’s capital, with members of the military junta in which they discussed the departure of U.S. troops. Pentagon spokesman General Patrick Ryder confirmed the contacts.

The tug of war between the Nigerien and U.S. authorities has been going on for months. After the coup d’état of July 2023, Washington froze its military mission in support of the anti-jihadist fight, but tried to maintain at all costs its presence in Niger, key to its security strategy in Africa. However, as was the case in Mali and Burkina Faso, the signing of agreements with Russia was a red line for Washington. As such, the Niger authorities decided to break the pact that kept them united and to start the process of expelling U.S. troops.

Russia’s Africa Corps arrives in Niger

“Amid discussion underway since July 2023, we have been unable to reach an understanding with the CNSP [National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland, the name under which the military junta in Niger governs] to continue that security cooperation in a manner that addresses the needs and concerns of each side,” the U.S. diplomatic mission in Niamey said in a statement issued last Thursday. On April 11, with the departure of the U.S. military already on the table, Nigerien state television reported the arrival of the first Russian instructors together with equipment sent by Moscow, including anti-aircraft defense systems. The Africa Corps, the Russian Defense Ministry’s successor unit to the Wagner mercenary group, confirmed the arrival of its men in the country.

The West considers that Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, after years of military assistance in combating jihadist groups and insurgents with very questionable results, have fallen under Russian influence. Thus, the next diplomatic battle is being fought in Chad. With gold and crude oil under its soil, Chad is considered key because it hosts the last major French military base in the region — France has 1,000 soldiers deployed in at least three sites — and is emerging as the alternative to Niger for U.S. troops in Washington’s strategy to fight jihadist terrorism in the Sahel and the Lake Chad region. Moscow is also pulling strings to win the favor of the Chadian regime. The country is going through a turbulent period following the 2021 coup d’état led by General Mahamat Idriss Déby, who seized power after the death of his father, Idriss Déby, in a skirmish with a rebel group.

On May 6, Chad holds presidential elections in which the frontrunner is precisely Mahamat Idriss Déby. The transitional regime has intensified its contacts in recent months not only with Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso — the three members of the recently created Association of Sahel States (AES) — but also directly with the Kremlin. Déby himself held a friendly meeting with Vladimir Putin on January 24 in Moscow. In a recent interview with Radio France International, he admitted that the two had discussed military cooperation and said that Chad is sovereign in choosing allies. “We intend to work with all the nations of the world that respect us and want to work with us by respecting each other,” he said.

Last Friday, Moscow-friendly media, including the African Initiative news agency, which has been accused by the U.S. of being a disinformation tool at the service of the Kremlin, aired a letter from Chadian Air Force General Idriss Amine Ahmed informing his country’s Defense Ministry that he had asked the U.S. Defense attaché in Niamey for “the immediate suspension of activities” at the Adji Kosseï base. “We ask you,” the military commander said in his missive, “to intercede with whoever is appropriate to warn the Americans that we have taken the decision to stop their activity.” Amine Ahmed argued that, after requesting documents from Washington, Chad had found no justification for the U.S. military presence at the base located in the center of N’Djamena. Washington has around 100 uniformed personnel in the country.

A continent-wide belt of Russian influence

Asked by EL PAÍS, the U.S. State Department said that its “military deployments abroad operate by invitation and with the support and partnership of the host nation.” It acknowledged that it is in talks with the Chadian authorities regarding the security agreement between the two countries — which not only includes anti-terrorism work, but also military training — “as Chad concentrates on preparing for its elections,” the department said in a message. “We anticipate consultations on the parameters of our security cooperation after the elections.”

With or without agreement between the parties, General Ryder said last Thursday, according to Reuters, that the U.S. high command has given the green light, at least temporarily, for the transfer of several dozen special forces personnel currently stationed in Chad to the Stuttgart-Möhringen base in Germany where Africom is headquartered. The fear that Chad might also fall into Putin’s orbit is also due to a clear geopolitical issue: it would allow a land connection between the Central African Republic and Sudan, where Wagner’s mercenaries have been operating for years, and Moscow’s new allies in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, creating a continent-wide belt of Russian influence.

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