WASHINGTON POST: By Craig Whitlock, Friday, February 22, 10:18 AM
President 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-Qaeda fighters in the Sahara.
In a letter to Congress, Obama said about 40 U.S. military personnel arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number of troops based there to “approximately” 100. He said the troops, who are armed for self-protection, would support a French-led military operation in neighboring Mali, where al-Qaeda fighters and other militants have carved out a refuge in a remote territory the size of Texas.
The drone base in Niger marks the opening of another far-flung U.S. military operation against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, in addition to ongoing combat missions in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The CIA is also conducting airstrikes against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan and Yemen.
Senior U.S. officials have said for months that they would not put U.S. military “boots on the ground” in Mali, an impoverished nation that has been mired chaos since March when a U.S.-trained Malian army captain took power in a coup. But U.S. troops are becoming increasingly involved in the conflict from the skies and the rear echelons, where they are supporting the French and African militaries seeking to stabilize the region.
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 intelligence with French forces in Mali.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide further details about military operations, said the 40 troops who arrived in Niger Wednesday were almost all Air Force personnel and that their mission is to support drone flights.
The official said drone operations were “imminent,” but declined to say whether unmanned Predator aircraft had already arrived in Niger or how many would be deployed there. The drones will be based initially in the capital, Niamey, but military officials would like to move them eventually to the northern city of Agadez, which is closer to parts of northern Mali where al-Qaeda cells have taken root.
“That’s a better location for the mission, but it’s not feasible at this point,” the official said, adding that Agadez is a more remote city “with logistical challenges.”
The introduction of Predators to Niger fills a gap in the Pentagon’s military capabilities over the Sahara, which remains beyond the reach of its drone bases in East Africa and southern Europe.
The U.S. military has been flying a handful of small turboprop surveillance planes over northern Mali and West Africa for years, but the PC-12 aircraft are limited in 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. But those planes do not carry military markings and only require a handful of people to operate.
In contrast, Predators need ground crews to launch and recover the drones as well as to repair and maintain them. 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-Qaeda targets, officials said.