AIR BASE 201, Niger -- Rising from a barren stretch of African scrubland, a half-finished drone base represents the newest front line in the United States' global shadow war.
At its center, hundreds of Air Force personnel are feverishly working to complete a $110 million airfield that, when finished in the coming months, will be used to stalk or strike extremists deep into West and North Africa, a region where most Americans have no idea the country is fighting.
Near the nascent runway, Army Green Berets are training Nigerien forces to carry out counterterrorism raids or fend off an enemy ambush -- like the one that killed four U.S. soldiers near the Mali border last fall.
Taken together, these parallel missions reflect a largely undeclared U.S. military buildup outside the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, often with murky authoryand little public attention, unfolding in remote places like Yemen, Somalia and, increasingly, West Africa.
In Niger alone, the Pentagon in the past few years has doubled the number of U.S. troops, to about 800 -- not to conduct unilateral combat missions, but to battle an increasingly dangerous al-Qaida, the Islamic State and even loosely associated extremist groups with proxy forces and drone strikes. The military's missions in Niger are expected to come under scrutiny in a long-awaited Defense Department investigation into the deadly Oct. 4 ambush that is nearing release.
"The base, and the more frequent flights that its opening will allow, will give us far more situational awareness and intelligence on a region that has been a hub of illicit and extremist activity," said P.W. Singer, a strategist at New America in Washington who has written extensively about drones. "But it will also further involve us in yet more operations and fights that few Americans are even aware our military is in."
Questions about whether the U.S. military, under President Donald Trump's administration, is seeking to obscure the expanding scope of operations in Africa surfaced last month when it was revealed that the United States had carried out four airstrikes in Libya between September and January that the military's Africa Command had failed to disclose at the time.
Soon after, the military acknowledged for the first time that Green Berets working with Nigerien forces had killed 11 Islamic State militants in a multiday firefight in December. No American or Nigerien forces were harmed in the December gunbattle.
But the combat -- along with at least 10 other previously unreported attacks on U.S. troops in West Africa between 2015 and 2017 -- underscored the fact that the deadly ambush in Niger was not an isolated episode. Nigerien forces and their American advisers are preparing other major operations to clear out militants, military officials say.
"It's essential that the American public is aware of, engaged in, and decides whether or not to support American military operations in countries around the world, including Niger," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who visited Niger with four other senators this month.
Six months after the fatal attack, which took place outside the village of Tongo Tongo near the Mali border, the Trump administration stands at a critical crossroad in the military's global counterterrorism campaign.
One path would push ahead with Trump's campaign vow to defeat the Islamic State and other violent extremist organizations, not just in Iraq and Syria, but worldwide. The other would be to pull out and leave more of the fighting to allies, as Trump said he wants to do in Syria, possibly ceding hard-fought ground to militants.
During a counterterrorism exercise last week in north-central Niger that drew nearly 2,000 military personnel from 20 African and Western countries, many officers voiced concerns that the United States' commitment in West Africa could fall victim to the latter impulse.
"It's important to still have support from the U.S. to help train my men, to help with our shortfalls," said Col. Maj. Moussa Salaou Barmou, commander of Niger's 2,000 special operations forces, who trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and the National Defense University in Washington.
In an interview on the sidelines of the exercise, Maj. Gen. J. Marcus Hicks, head of U.S. special operations forces in Africa, put it this way: "This is an insurance policy that's very inexpensive, and I think we need to keep paying into it."
Where American and Nigerien officials see enhanced security in drone operations -- for surveillance, strikes or protecting special-forces patrols -- others fear a potentially destabilizing impact that could hand valuable recruiting propaganda to an array of groups aligned with al-Qaida and the Islamic State, and that could increase the militants' menace.
"Eliminating jihadi military leaders through drone operations could temporarily disorganize insurgent groups," said Jean-Herve Jezequel, deputy director of the International Crisis Group's West Africa project in Dakar, Senegal. "But eventually the void could also lead to the rise of new and younger leaders who are likely to engage into more violent and spectacular operations to assert their leadership."
WINNING HEARTS, MINDS
A rare visit this month to Air Base 201, the largest construction project that Air Force engineers have ever undertaken alone, revealed several challenges.
Commanders grapple with swirling dust storms, scorching temperatures and lengthy spare-part deliveries to fix broken equipment. All have conspired to put the project more than a year behind schedule and $22 million over its original budget.
U.S. officials have sought to allay fears of residents that the base, just 2 miles outside the city of Agadez, could be a target for terrorist attacks -- not a guardian against them. Rumors circulated that the dozens of dump trucks rumbling in and out of the heavily defended front gates each day were secretly stealing valuable uranium, for which the region is renowned.
"We had to overcome some suspicion and distrust," said Lt. Col. Brad Harbaugh, commander of the 724th Expeditionary Air Base Squadron, the senior officer.
Niger's government approved Air Base 201 in 2014. Last November, a month after the deadly ambush, the government of Niger gave the Defense Department permission to fly armed drones out of Niamey, a major expansion of the U.S. military's firepower in Africa. American and Nigerien officers refused to discuss armed operations. But a Defense Department official acknowledged that the military in January started flying armed missions from Niamey, 500 miles southwest of the base, including the deadly strike in southern Libya last month.
MQ-9 Reaper drones, made by General Atomics, will be moved to Air Base 201 once its runway and hangars are completed by early next year, as will several hundred U.S. troops. Roughly half of the 800 American forces in Niger -- the second-largest U.S. troop presence in Africa, second only to the 4,000 military personnel at a permanent base in Djibouti -- work there now.
Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, a website run by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that tracks military strikes against militant groups, said that moving the drone operations to Agadez had two main advantages.
First, he said, the base will be more centrally located to conduct operations throughout the Sahel, a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Sudan and has been seized by a growing wave of terrorism and armed conflict.
Second, Agadez is more isolated than Niamey. That will help keep the operations more low-key and away from prying eyes.
"The Agadez base has the potential to become the most active counterterrorism hub in Africa," Roggio said.
The Niger deployment is only the second time that armed drones have been stationed and used in Africa.
Drones now based in Djibouti are used in Yemen and Somalia, where there were about 30 strikes last year against al-Shabab and Islamic State targets -- twice the number in 2016. Drones used against targets in Libya have flown from Sicily, but with a range of about 1,100 miles, the Reapers could not reach militant hideouts in southern Libya.
The United States also flies unarmed surveillance drones from bases in Tunisia and Cameroon.
Eventually, the plan is to turn Air Base 201 completely over to the Nigerien military. American and Nigerien security forces now jointly patrol the 2,200-acre site. The base cafeteria employs 80 local workers, and the Americans have spent tens of millions of dollars on local rock, concrete, steel, wood and other supplies.
Civic leaders and local journalists were recently invited to tour the base.
A four-man civil affairs team led by Capt. Andrew Dacey, a former Army infantry platoon leader in Iraq, has worked closely with civic, religious and educational leaders in Agadez to help address the high unemployment and ill-equipped schools -- shortcomings that Islamist extremists can exploit.
The team is helping schools start a metal and wood craftsman apprenticeship that teaches teenage students new skills and supplies classrooms with refurbished desks.
"The base has been very helpful for our security and our economy," said Mahaman Ali, an inspector for primary schools in the area, pointing to piles of broken desks that will be repaired.
And yet doubts still linger about the base's enduring legacy.
"The deployment of armed drones is not going to make a strategic difference," said E.J. Hogendoorn, the International Crisis Group's deputy Africa program director in Washington, "and may even increase local hostility to the U.S. and the central government in distant Niamey."
A Section on 04/22/2018
Print Headline: U.S. shadow war materializes in Africa