U.S. sends troops to West Africa to set up drone base
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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama announced Friday that about 100 U.S. troops have been deployed to the West African country of Niger, where defense officials said they are setting up a drone base to spy on al-Qaida fighters in the Sahara.
In a letter to Congress, Mr. Obama said about 40 U.S. military personnel arrived Wednesday in Niger, bringing the total number of troops based there to "approximately" 100. He said the troops, which are armed for self-protection, would support a French-led military operation in neighboring Mali, where al-Qaida fighters and other militants have carved out a refuge in a remote territory the size of Texas.
The base in Niger marks the opening of another far-flung U.S. military front against al-Qaida and its affiliates, adding to drone combat missions in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The CIA also is conducting drone airstrikes against al-Qaida targets in Pakistan and Yemen.
Senior U.S. officials have said for months they would not put U.S. military "boots on the ground" in Mali, an impoverished nation that has been mired in chaos since March, when a U.S.-trained Malian army captain staged a coup. But U.S. troops are becoming increasingly involved in the conflict from the skies and the rear echelons, where they are supporting French and African forces seeking to stabilize the region.
Mr. Obama did not explicitly reveal the drone base in his letter to Congress, but he said the U.S. troops in Niger would "provide support for intelligence collection" and share the intelligence with French forces in Mali.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide details about military operations, said the 40 troops who arrived Wednesday in Niger were almost all Air Force personnel, and that their mission was to support drone flights. The official said drone flights were "imminent," but declined to say whether unarmed, unmanned Predator aircraft had already arrived in Niger, or how many would be deployed there.
The drones will be based at first in the capital, Niamey. But military officials would like to move them eventually north to the city of Agadez, which is closer to parts of Mali where al-Qaida cells have taken root. "That's a better location for the mission, but it's not feasible at this point," the official said, describing Agadez as a frontier city "with logistical challenges."
The introduction of Predators to Niger fills a gap in U.S. military capabilities over the Sahara, most of which remains beyond the reach of its drone bases in East Africa and southern Europe. The Pentagon also operates drones from a permanent base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, and from a civilian airport in Ethiopia. The U.S. military has been flying small turboprop surveillance planes over northern Mali and West Africa for years, but the PC-12 spy aircraft have limited range and lack the sophisticated sensors that Predators carry.
U.S. military contractors have been flying PC-12 surveillance aircraft from Agadez for several months. Those planes do not carry military markings and only require a handful of people to operate. In contrast, Predators need ground crews to launch, recover and maintain the drones. Those crews, in turn, require armed personnel for protection.
The U.S. defense official said it is likely that more U.S. troops will deploy to Niger, but declined to be specific. "I think it's safe to say the number will probably grow."
The Predators in Niger will only conduct surveillance, not airstrikes, the official said. "This is purely an intelligence gathering mission," he said. Other officials said the Obama administration had not ruled out arming the Predators with missiles in the future.
Information collected from reconnaissance missions will be shared with the French and other African militaries so they can attack al-Qaida targets, officials said.
There is evidence that al-Qaida fighters in West Africa are already bracing for drone warfare. The Associated Press reported finding an al-Qaida document in Timbuktu, Mali, that listed 22 tips for avoiding drones. Among other countermeasures, it advised hiding "under thick trees" and buying off-the-shelf electronic scramblers "to confuse the frequencies used to control the drone."
Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, signed an agreement with the United States last month that provides legal safeguards for U.S. forces stationed there. Nigerian officials are concerned about the spillover of violence and refugees from Mali, which have threatened to destabilize the entire region.
First Published February 23, 2013 12:00 am