WASHINGTON/LONDON – The U.S. military plans to set up a base for drones in northwest Africa to bolster surveillance of al-Qaida’s affiliate in the region and allied Islamist extremists, a U.S. official said Monday.
The base for the robotic, unmanned aircraft would likely be located in Niger, on the eastern border of Mali, where French forces are currently waging a campaign against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The base was first reported by The New York Times earlier Monday.
A U.S. defense official called the plans “preliminary” and said the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House and the government of Niger would all have to approve. “But it would be a good place to be, in terms of access,” the official added.
The airfield would allow for better intelligence gathering by unarmed drones monitoring the movements of AQIM and other militants, which Washington considers a growing threat, the official said.
If the plan is approved, up to 300 U.S. military service members and contractors could be sent to the base to operate the drone aircraft, according to the Times.
U.S. Africa Command was also looking at an alternative location for the base in Burkina Faso, the official said.
But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reiterated that there were no plans to commit U.S. troops to any fighting on the ground.
“The U.S. military is not going to be engaged in combat operations in Mali,” she stressed. “We don’t expect U.S. forces to become directly involved on the ground in combat either.”
The United States and Niger signed a “status of forces” agreement Monday, which will provide legal safeguards for any American forces in the country. The Pentagon secures such agreements for base arrangements or troop deployments.
The Obama administration has increased counterterrorism assistance to Niger in recent years and sent Special Forces personnel there on training missions, but the numbers have been limited to a dozen or so troops at a time.
The French intervention in Mali, the recent hostage-taking at an Algerian natural gas plant and the deadly assault on a U.S. Consulate in Libya in September has increased the demand in Washington for more intelligence on militants in the region.
As news emerged of the planned drone base, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. military and intelligence officials were weighing plans to provide French fighter aircraft with sophisticated data to help them hunt down militants in Mali.
President Barack Obama’s administration waited for more than two weeks before agreeing to offer aerial refueling tankers to the French forces, amid concerns among some advisers that assisting the French could draw the United States into an open-ended conflict.
The Obama administration has also provided transport planes to help ferry French weapons and troops and to share intelligence with Paris from surveillance aircraft, reportedly including unmanned Global Hawk aircraft.
Britain, meanwhile, is considering sending about 200 noncombat troops to aid the military operation, with a decision expected within days, media reports said Tuesday.
This would likely include a small number deployed to Mali itself, as part of an EU training mission. A larger number would help train West African forces in the region to join the battle alongside the French and Malian troops.
Prime Minister David Cameron called President Francois Hollande on Sunday to say Britain was “keen” to provide further help to French forces in Mali.
But his Downing Street office declined to give more details other than to stress that as more than a decade of conflict in Afghanistan finally approaches its end, Britain would not be deploying combat troops to another war zone.