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Cameron Hudson discusses future of U.S.-Niger military relations following the coup


The Biden administration is condemning a power grab by military officers in the West African nation of Niger that removed the country's democratically elected president from power. Niger plays an important role in the U.S.'s counterterrorism operations in the region. Over 1,000 active-duty American troops are there now. The future of that relationship is unclear. To hear more about the ties between the U.S. and Niger's militaries, we called Cameron Hudson. He's a senior associate for the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cameron, what is the strategic importance of the U.S.'s relationship with Niger?

CAMERON HUDSON: Well, it's twofold. First, the United States maintains two drone bases in the country, and from those bases we are able to collect intelligence over a wide swath of the Sahel and Eastern Africa, all the way from Sudan to Mali, north to Libya and south to Nigeria. So it's a platform for the United States for intelligence collection. Secondarily, we are actively involved in the fight against terrorism with Nigerian forces. There has been an encroachment of ISIS- and al-Qaida-affiliated offshoots in the region. You've heard about coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, you know, prompted by the terrorist threat there. And so we are, you know, in a twofold fight with the Nigerians. We rely on them for our intelligence collection and helping them on the ground.

MARTÍNEZ: Does the U.S. train their military?

HUDSON: Yes, absolutely. We are in a train and assist program. Since 2017, when four American service members were killed in Niger on their own CT - counterterrorism - patrol operation, we have stepped back from what they called the trigger-pulling part of the operations, and we are now in an advise and assist capacity, where we are training up elements of the Nigerian special forces and their military to face these terrorist threats on their own.

MARTÍNEZ: So it sounds like both sides are getting a lot out of this arrangement.

HUDSON: Absolutely. No, absolutely. Washington is able to, again, have drones over the civil war in Sudan, over Libya, over Boko Haram in Nigeria. This is a platform in Central Africa that the United States has become to rely on for all of its counterterrorism operations and all of its intelligence gathering in the region.

MARTÍNEZ: So let's just say if because of all this U.S. influence in Niger wanes, who might step in to fill that void?

HUDSON: Well, it's a question. I think that the Nigerians themselves don't have the capacity to continue this counterterrorism fight on their own. They simply aren't capable enough to face down these terrorist threats. We have seen in Mali, for example, that the Malian authorities, when they kicked out the French European security contingent there, they invited in the Wagner Group. We have not seen any indications yet that Niger is planning to do the same. But I think it's hard to determine whether or not or how long they can hold out against the encroachment of these terrorist forces coming into their country and, frankly, approaching their capital in very long time without any outside assistance coming in.

MARTÍNEZ: The Biden administration is hesitant to call what's happened there a coup. Can you tell us why?

HUDSON: Well, the coup is a very loaded legal term in in diplomacy. And what happens when the State Department declares a military coup is it triggers congressional legislation that requires us to suspend immediately military assistance to those countries and also other forms of assistance. So it is a reflection of our values, of our democratic values, but it also imperils some of our hard security interests on the ground. And I think when the State Department hesitates in doing that, what it's trying to do is just keep its options open so that we can dial back our security assistance, perhaps on a temporary measure in the hopes of being able to restore democracy in the country or some semblance of democracy, civilian rule and so that we can keep that security assistance going. So I think that's what the Biden administration is doing right now, is just keeping all its options open.

MARTÍNEZ: Cameron Hudson is a senior associate for the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cameron, thanks.

HUDSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIA KENT'S "GARDERMOEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.