Pentagon admits some ‘non-essential’ personnel have left Niger

The Pentagon admitted on Thursday that an unspecified number of U.S. personnel deemed non-essential have left Niger since that country’s military ousted its democratically elected president in late July.

Roughly 1,100 U.S. troops are deployed to Niger, where the U.S. military operates two drone bases: One, dubbed Air Base 101, out of Niger’s capital of Niamey and the other, Air Base 201, near Agadez that cost $110 million to build.

Drone operations out of those bases ceased after Niger’s military took power on July 26. The U.S. government has not described the military takeover as a “coup.” Doing so would risk triggering US laws that would end American economic and security assistance to Niger.

On Thursday, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters that “some non-essential personnel and contractors” Niger in July, but she could not specify how many or if they included active-duty troops.

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The U.S. military’s overall footprint in Niger remains at about 1,100 troops, Singh said at a Pentagon news briefing.

“Our force posture in Niger hasn’t changed,” Singh said. “Our essential personnel are still in the country right now, in Niger.”

FILE: A U.S. Air Force C-130J Super Hercules assigned to the 37th Airlift Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, takes off from the new runway at Nigerien Air Base 201, Agadez, Niger, Aug. 3, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Devin Boyer/U.S. Air Force)

A U.S. official told Task & Purpose on Thursday that the total number of non-essential personnel that have left Niger is fewer than 100 and it includes the departure of some people who were already scheduled to leave  the country and were not subsequently replaced,.

U.S. military planners are looking at how many service members are needed in Niger, the official said.

Reporters pressed Singh on Thursday about why the Defense Department had not previously announced that U.S. personnel had left Niger.

Rather, defense officials have said repeatedly – including as recently as Tuesday – that there have been no changes to the U.S. military’s force posture in Niger since the coup.

Singh stressed that only “non-essential” personnel have departed Niger, including some for medical reasons. Others left before the coup.

She also said that routine fluctuations in troop levels do not translate into a change in the U.S. military’s overall force posture.

“Just like on the eastern flank, in Europe and in Poland, we have troops that come back and forth, and sometimes that posture could be around 80,000.  Sometimes it could be around 78,000 – that doesn’t mean our force posture has changed,” Singh said. “There’s a movement of folks going back and forth.”

Air Force Gen. James Hecker, commander of US Air Forces Europe/Africa, told reporters in August that the U.S. military is making plans in case it is ordered to evacuate both of its drone bases in Niger, but no such order has been given or appears to be imminent.

On Thursday, Reuters first reported that U.S. troops and military equipment in Niger are moving from Niamey to the base near Agadez.

The move is being done out of “an abundance of caution,” not due to a threat against U.S. troops in Niger, Singh told reporters at Thursday’s news conference.

A small force of U.S. troops will remain at the drone base in Niamey, she said.

“We’re not pulling people out right now,” Singh said. “We’re just moving personnel and assets to Air Base 201 [in Agadez].”

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