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Biden Keeps Troops in Niger as Coup Threatens to Spark Regional War

The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed Tuesday that American troops remain in Niger and have no plan to leave, though they remain in “clearly a not-normal situation” following the head of the presidential guard staging an attempted coup d’etat against President Mohamed Bazoum.

A group of soldiers calling themselves the “National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland” appeared on national television in Niger last Thursday and declared themselves the rulers of the country, announcing they had abducted Bazoum and were keeping him under house arrest in the presidential residence. A day later, General Abdourahmane Tchiani, the head of the presidential guard, declared himself president on television. In his speech, Tchiani appeared to accuse Bazoum of betraying the intentions of allied nations, such as America, against terror threats.

“The current security approach has not made it possible to secure our country despite the heavy sacrifices made by Nigeriens and the appreciable and appreciated support of our external partners,” Tchiani observed.

The Council and Tchiani both said in their broadcasts that Bazoum’s failure to address the deteriorating security situation – particularly in the face of growing jihadist threats to the country – necessitated the power grab.

Washington has aggressively rejected the seizure of power, supporting the Nigeria-led Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in announcing a series of severe sanctions against Niger including shutting down mutual borders, freezing government assets, and a potential military invasion. While the State Department expressed support for the sanctions, it did not address the threat of “use of force” directly, leaving open whether or not America would support an invasion of the country to restore Bazoum’s administration.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed in a press release that he spoke to Bazoum to extend America’s support on Tuesday.

Bazoum is one of America’s few remaining allies in West Africa after a series of coups installed anti-Western military regimes in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea in the last two years. American troops have been operating in Niger for years, aiding in attempts to combat jihadist terrorist organizations operating in the greater Sahel region.

Despite the chaos in the country, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters on Tuesday that the administration of leftist President Joe Biden is not currently evacuating American troops or civilians from the country, as it does not believe that “any type of imminent threat” exists against them. Ryder said that the Pentagon had “suspended” operations alongside the Nigerien military – which issued a statement in support of the coup last week – but remained in contact with military leaders.

“All indications right now that there’s no, you know, imminent threat against any U.S. personnel or American citizens, but again, we continue to encourage American citizens who are in the country to stay in close contact with our embassy there,” Ryder said during his press briefing on Tuesday. “As far as security cooperation, those efforts right now are suspended in light of the situation but certainly we maintain close contact with our Niger military counterparts in the country as the situation continues to unfold.”

Ryder later specified that the kind of activities suspended included training Nigerien forces, but did not elaborate further. Regarding communication, he noted that senior American leaders are in conversation with the office of the Nigerien defense chief. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley spoke to his Nigerien counterpart, Chief of Defense Lt. Gen. Issa Abdou Sidikou, in a phone call immediately after the coup declaration on Thursday.

“We’re closely monitoring the situation there. It continues to remain very fluid. Too soon to characterize the nature of ongoing developments, but as you’ve heard us say publicly, you know, we continue to support the democratically elected President of Niger,” he noted.
Ryder also refused to use the word “coup” to describe the power grab in the country, rejecting “labels” on the “fluid” situation generally.

Asked about operations at U.S. bases in Niger, Ryder said, “I would say that clearly [this is] a not-normal situation. As I mentioned earlier, no indication right now of any type of imminent threat against U.S. forces in Niger.”

“Largely speaking, our forces are doing due diligence when it comes to force protection and remaining on those bases, although when necessary, environment permitting, they are still engaging and going off-base to engage with our Nigerian counterparts as necessary,” he affirmed.

The presence of American forces in Niger greatly complicates threats by ECOWAS – which Niger officially belongs to – to invade the country and forcefully uproot Tchiani’s mutineers. The regional economic bloc, led by Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, announced after an emergency meeting on Sunday that it would, among other sanctions, close all air and land borders with Niger, freeze government assets in its banks, stop offering any active utility services, and cease all commercial activity with Niger. The statement asserted that, if Bazoum was not in control of the country within a week, ECOWAS countries would “take all measures necessary to restore constitutional order in the Republic of Niger.”

“Such measures may include the use of force,” the statement read.

“The United States welcomes and commends the strong leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Heads of State and Government to defend constitutional order in Niger,” Blinken said in a statement following the publication of the statement.

“The United States will remain actively engaged with ECOWAS and West African leaders on next steps to preserve Niger’s hard-earned democracy,” Blinken promised. The top diplomat’s statement did not mention the threat of use of force, much less whether America would aid it.

Reports out of the emergency summit this weekend suggest that several ECOWAS member states eagerly supported military intervention to send a message to prevent further regional coups, such as those in Burkina Faso and Mali. Liberia’s New Republic reported on Wednesday that ECOWAS leaders had ordered their respective military leaders this week to plan for a military operation. Yet, according to Radio France Internationale (RFI), the ECOWAS regional force is poorly organized and has a history of failed operations and violence against civilians.

“Since its creation, this force [the ECOWAS armed force] has been led by Nigeria, which provides it with most of the soldiers, equipment, and funding,” RFI detailed this week. It has conducted few operations, many with poor reputations. In an intervention in Liberia in 1994, for example, “people accuse soldiers, especially Nigerians, of looting, rape and murder.”

Adding to concerns is a missive published by the coup governments of Burkina Faso and Mali committing to military engagement against ECOWAS should it invade Niger.

“Any military intervention against Niger would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali,” the military juntas warned on Monday.

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