President Barack Obama informed Congressional leaders on Friday that approximately one hundred American military personnel have been deployed to Niger to “provide support for intelligence collection and . . . facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners” fighting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies.

While the drone base the troops are setting up is a much-needed addition to US intelligence-gathering capabilities in a region that has seen a burgeoning extremist threat, Niger, which has emerged as a key country in managing the Sahel crisis, needs more than just better information on the militants next door.

Despite its own fragility—it ranks second from the bottom on the most recent United Nations Development Program Human Development Index, eleven places below Mali—Niger has weathered the recent upheaval in its neighborhood surprisingly well. The stability is all the more amazing when one considers that the country went through a military coup just three years ago. The difference between the military officers who overthrew Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja and the mutineers who deposed Mali’s Amadou Toumani Touré last year, precipitating the current crisis, however, was that the former were acting against an increasingly despotic ruler trying to stay in power beyond his constitutional term of office and then quickly kept their promise to hand power back to civilians; in contrast, the latter continue to pull strings behind the scenes as evidenced by the arrest and forced resignation of Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra exactly one month before the French military intervention. 

Since taking office in April 2011 after decisively winning an election judged to be free and transparent, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has had his hands full. Two weeks before the veteran opposition politician was sworn into office, NATO began military operations to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi; the conflict in Libya eventually sent more than 200,000 refugees into Niger. Unlike Mali, which became awash in weapons looted from Libyan stockpiles, however, Nigerien authorities worked assiduously to disarm those who came over their border. As result, while the returned workers and others displaced by the Libyan civil war continue to tax the country’s resources, their presence has not resulted in the same sort of rebellion that broke out in 2012 among the Tuareg in Mali. 

While Niger’s own Tuareg have rebelled in the past, they made their peace with the country’s government in 2009 and, unlike in Mali, many of their leaders have either been elected to local government positions in the northern part of the country where the nomadic group is concentrated or been integrated into the national administration in the capital. In a highly symbolic gesture towards a community that has felt marginalized since independence, Issoufou chose an ethnic Tuareg, Brigi Rafini, as his prime minister.  

Nevertheless the revolt by the Malian Tuaregs and the subsequent Islamist takeover of northern two-thirds of that country sent another 50,000 refugees pouring into Niger, placing further strains on the country. Posing a greater danger to Niger than the humanitarian burden, however, was the creation of a safe haven for terrorists and extremists in close proximity to the country’s population centers. For example, Gao, the largest town in northern Mali and site of last week’s attacks by militants on French and Malian forces, is barely 400 kilometers from the Nigerien capital of Niamey. Nigerien authorities responded to last year’s takeover by deploying some 5,000 troops along the 821-kilometer border with Mali where they fought off a number of attempted incursions by an AQIM offshoot, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and raising the alarm internationally, as the government’s spokesman, Minister of Justice Marou Amadou, did during an Atlantic Council roundtable last September. More recently, Niger was one of the first countries to contribute a contingent of more than 500 men to the UN-authorized African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). And, of course, it has agreed to host the US unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, initially in Niamey and eventually near the ancient caravan town of Agadez.  

While improved intelligence about goings-on next door will undoubtedly be welcome by the country’s government and security services, Niger needs much more if it is to not only continue riding out the current crisis in the Sahel, but, indeed, help reverse the tide of insecurity rising all around it—the continuing disorder in Libya to the north, the possible outbreak of an insurgency in Mali to the west, renewed attacks by Boko Haram, a new spate of kidnappings of Westerners in Nigeria to the south, and the growth of drug smuggling throughout the region.  

Niger was, from the start, a beneficiary of US counterterrorism training through State Department-led Pan-Sahel Initiative and its successor, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. The former colonial power, France, also continues to play an important security role, most recently training and equipping the Nigerien unit for service in Mali as well as sending special operations forces to help protect a mine near the northern town of Airlit that supplies the uranium used to generate 75 percent of French electricity. Last year, the European Union launched a Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) civilian mission, dubbed “EUCAP SAHEL Niger,” led by Spanish Brigadier General Francisco Espinosa Navas, to improve the capacities of Niger’s Gendarmerie, National Guard, and National Police to combat terrorism and organized crime.  

Security assistance is important, but development, economic and political, is perhaps even more critical for sixteen million people who live in this largely desert country roughly twice the size of Texas as they confront these challenges on top of their daily struggle for survival—the country is just recovering from a food crisis which affected more than five million people in 2012. The United States, of course, cannot be expected to do this alone, although it is in America’s interests to ratchet up non-military aid as it establishes its modest military footprint in the country. France remains Niger’s most important bilateral aid donor, with programs prioritizing rural development, road infrastructure, and macroeconomic support, as well as regional integration. Other countries have also stepped up, some with traditional assistance, others with creative measures. Denmark, for example, has made Niger is one of the three focus countries for its new Sahel initiative, which will builds on longstanding development assistance to the region by adding $22 million over the next few years to programs privileging local solutions to stabilization challenges. Meanwhile Turkey, which opened an embassy in Niamey just last year, has sent a host of business and aid delegations to Niger in the wake of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit last month. Turkey’s International Development and Cooperation Agency (TIKA) has undertaken a number of projects, including a forestry initiative to counter desertification, while Turkish Airlines has announced a joint venture with the Nigerien government to expand affordable passenger and cargo service to the landlocked country.  

The deployment of drones to Niger by the Obama administration is the right move, but regional security—and the interests of the United States and its allies—would be better served by a more comprehensive engagement in what is truly a frontline country. 

J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Photo credit: Fotopedia

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