The United States needs to get troops out of Niger

Earlier this month, the government of Niger revoked its military cooperation agreement with the United States and demanded the withdrawal of approximately 1,000 U.S. military personnel from the West African nation. Washington is currently negotiating with the Nigerien junta, which came to power in a July coup, to keep a contingent of troops in place, perhaps at a lower level.

That is a bad idea, however, on the part of the Biden administration. Instead of trying to stay, the United States needs to take this opportunity to do what Niamey asked it do: i.e., leave. U.S. interests in Niger are marginal at best and the costs of the U.S. troop presence are growing under the current regime. By revoking military cooperation with Washington, Niger just gave the United States a glidepath to properly rebalance policy commitments in West Africa. The Biden administration needs to take advantage of that, which starts by moving forces out of Niger.

There are several reasons why drawing down from Niger makes sense today. For starters, the U.S. has few strategic interests at stake in Niger. In 2013, U.S. forces deployed to Niger to help combat terrorist organizations affiliated with al Qaeda and later ISIS. None of these local terrorist groups have ever threatened or attempted to attack the United States or its closest allies, however. Instead, as numerous studies indicate, all are locally-focused insurgencies with exclusively regional, not global, objectives — they are, in short, al-Qaeda or ISIS in name only. That means the United States is applying too much force against too little threat today in Niger.

Added to that, after a decade of supporting counterterrorism operations in Niger and West Africa more broadly, it is abundantly clear U.S. policy isn’t working. Attacks by local terrorist groups have exploded across the region since U.S. troops arrived. In 2023, the Sahel region ranked the highest worldwide accounting for 43 percent of all global terrorism deaths — a 7 percent increase from the prior year. 

With the terror threat to the U.S. low and counterterrorism operations largely ineffective, why are there U.S. forces in Niger standing in harm’s way? There is no good answer to that question. Until the coup in July, U.S. forces in Niger conducted mainly air surveillance operations via drones to monitor local terrorist groups. That sort of over-the-horizon work can be done from a more stable regional country, where the threat to U.S. military personnel is lower. The Pentagon already has plans in the works for such a move. In sum, the U.S. deployments in Niger just aren’t that critical to U.S. security interests today.

Stemming Russian influence in West Africa (another interest often cited by U.S. officials) doesn’t offer a compelling reason to keep U.S. troops in Niger today either. So-called Russian influence has come with the introduction of Wagner (now, Africa Corps) mercenaries invited in by several West African governments to combat local terrorist insurgencies and provide regime security. 

All of these Russian forces have entered the region since U.S. troops arrived in Niger. That begs the question: If the U.S. troop presence hasn’t worked to keep Russian intervention and influence at bay to this point, why should we expect it to do so going forward? Serious questions exist about whether Russia even gains geopolitically from engagement in West Africa, which raises still more questions about how much the U.S. should focus on competing with them here. One thing is certain, though: The U.S. troop presence in Niger is a poor tool to carry on this competition and hence a poor reason to keep U.S. troops in Niger today. Nigerien leaders made a strategic decision to establish defense ties with Russia. As the rampant post-Wagner increase in violence and instability in neighboring Mali indicates, that choice may be one they come to regret. That is all the more reason to get U.S. troops out and find other, non-military ways to engage Niger and its struggling population.

Finally, the costs of the U.S. troop presence in Niger are now dangerously high, outpacing any benefits to keep those troops in place. U.S. forces came into Niger to support a large French counterterrorism operation in West Africa. Today, French forces are gone, having been kicked out of Mali, Burkina-Faso and Niger over the last two years. Other European and Canadian support forces are gone too.  

That leaves U.S. forces all alone in Niger today, highly exposed in a security environment that has deteriorated significantly since the July coup. In fact, things are so dangerous that most U.S. forces were consolidated to an airbase far from the capital of Niamey this fall. Today, the military operations they conduct focus almost exclusively on force protection, meaning U.S. troops in Niger aren’t fighting (or even surveilling) terrorists but instead just trying to survive. Again, why are those forces still there — and won’t they be even less safe if they stay in reduced numbers, as U.S. negotiators are currently discussing with the junta? With the Nigerien regime using language meant to fan anti-Americanism, U.S. forces find themselves on an island, an easy target for attack. A casualty event like Black Hawk Down or, more recently, Jordan could be just over the horizon in Niger. Those costs aren’t worth the benefits of keeping U.S. forces in Niger. 

All military operations eventually run their course. Niger has reached that point for the United States. Time to draw down forces. The Biden administration won’t regret it. They’ll have the Nigerien junta and its decision to kick us out this month to thank for that.

C. William Walldorf, Jr. is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest and a Visiting Fellow at Defense Priorities. He is currently writing a book, “America’s Forever Wars: Why So Long, Why End Now, What Comes Next, focused on Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”

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