The decision to pull U.S. diplomats out of the West African country, which POLITICO first reported was in the works, is a difficult one politically for President Joe Biden.
Niger, which only recently transitioned to democracy, is a key U.S. partner in the battle against terrorism, and the U.S. military has a presence in the country. The Biden team is struggling with whether to even formally declare the events a coup, because doing so could endanger its U.S. military aid to Niger, providing an opening for Russia to increase its influence in Africa.
A U.S. diplomatic pullout could undermine the Biden administration’s repeated statements of support for currently ousted Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum and his allies. But leaving diplomats in potential danger could hurt Biden domestically.
European militaries, including the French armed forces, have already begun evacuating foreign nationals from the country. One development that prompted the extractions was intelligence indicating the ruling junta could take foreigners hostage and use them as human shields in the event of a military intervention, a former U.S. official familiar with the discussions said.
A U.S. diplomat said earlier Wednesday that 20 staffers with the U.S. Agency for International Development had been evacuated this week. USAID spokesperson Jessica Jennings denied that the agency had evacuated any staff. It was not clear if any USAID contractors or other people linked to the agency had left.
The embassy also has released a contact form for private American citizens who may need help leaving Niger.
Robert Stryk, who runs a firm that extracts Americans in danger overseas, told POLITICO he and his team were “contacted by senior members of the United States government to inquire about our ability to move U.S. citizens out of Niger due to escalating concerns of violence.”
He added that he’s “liaised” with the French, British and Italian governments and is making plans to whisk U.S. officials to a “nearby safe location.” It’s unclear whether American diplomats and other staffers can leave Niger via private means without the government’s permission.
During his regular briefing for reporters on Wednesday, Miller insisted the Biden administration believes there’s still a chance to reverse the ouster of Bazoum. “We constantly monitor events on the ground and make decisions based on what’s appropriate to safeguard our personnel,” Miller said.
At the moment, the situation on the ground in the capital, Niamey, is relatively stable, the diplomat said. But protests are expected on Thursday, and an earlier demonstration led to an attack on the French Embassy.
A State Department travel alert that included the ordered departure notice Wednesday warned of potential unruliness. “With the ongoing efforts to overturn constitutional order, there may be increased demonstrations that can lead to civil unrest and government instability,” it stated.
Reports have also emerged that Gen. Salifou Mody, the deputy head of the military junta that has seized power, is traveling to Mali to seek support from the Russian-backed mercenary Wagner Group.
The involvement of Wagner forces in Niger would put the U.S. military in a difficult position, as Pentagon officials have recently raised alarms about the mercenary group’s outreach in other West African nations such as Mali. American commandos have previously clashed with Wagner forces, most prominently in a bloody 2018 battle in Syria.
The U.S. military has 1,100 troops in Niger, primarily stationed at Air Base 101 in Niamey and Air Base 201 at Agadez, which is a $100 million U.S.-funded facility that hosts American drones used to hunt terrorists. The American troops had been training and advising the Nigerien armed forces, but the Pentagon largely suspended that mission after the coup attempt.
Most American troops in Niger have been largely restricted to their bases for force protection reasons, according to a Defense Department official, who, like others, was granted anonymity to describe sensitive issues and conversations.
As of Tuesday, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said he was not aware of U.S. forces participating in an evacuation operation, and that there was no “imminent threat” to U.S. personnel or American citizens in the country.
“Obviously, we’re a planning organization, we’re always going to plan for various contingencies, but we continue to keep a close eye on the situation there,” Ryder said. “We continue to encourage American citizens who are in the country to stay in close contact with our embassy there.”
In the announcement Wednesday, Miller noted that the U.S. Senate had only recently confirmed an ambassador for Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, a career diplomat.
“Ambassador FitzGibbon is well positioned to manage our bilateral relationship through this difficult period and we look forward to her swift arrival in Niamey,” Miller said.