Planning is underway for a possible U.S. military evacuation from Niger, even though a top U.S. general says any final decision is still "weeks away."
The commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and U.S. Air Forces Africa told reporters Friday his headquarters is preparing for a range of scenarios that could force some 1,100 U.S. troops to abandon two airbases that have been critical to U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
"We'll be ready if something happens," General James Hecker said during a virtual briefing with members of the Defense Writers Group.
"There's a lot of hypotheticals we can come up with why and if we should evacuate," he said. "We just have to be prepared for all of them … of course, we're hoping we use none."
U.S. officials have been warning for weeks that Washington could withdraw its support for Niger if military officials who deposed Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum last month fail to return him to power.
But despite such threats, the U.S. has refused so far to call the situation in Niger a coup — a designation that could have far ranging impacts on the current military partnership.
A coup designation "certainly changes what we'd be able to do in the region and how we'd be able to partner with the Nigerien military," Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters earlier this week.
"We've been very clear it certainly looks like an attempted coup," she said. "Niger is quite a critical partner to us in the region, and so we are hopeful that we can resolve this in a diplomatic way."
The U.S. currently has about 1,100 troops in Niger as part of a counterterrorism mission focused on al-Qaida and Islamic State group affiliates in the region.
Most of the troops are located at two air bases, Air Base 201 in the Nigerien city of Agadez, on the edge of the Sahara desert, and Air Base 101 in the capital of Niamey.
Air Base 201, a $110 million, U.S.-built facility, has been especially pivotal for the counterterrorism mission, conducting drone flights with MQ-9 Reapers since 2019.
Hecker, on Friday, called the planning for a possible evacuation from the two bases prudent and precautionary, adding that his teams have considered scenarios in which they are called upon to evacuate civilians and even the U.S. Embassy under duress.
Planning also is underway for possible alternative bases for U.S. air assets should they have to leave Niger.
"We will obviously look to some other allies in the west [of Africa] there that we could maybe partner up with and then move our assets there," Hecker said.
"We've just started looking at that … where we would like the base to be," he said in response to a question from VOA. "But more of that is going to be diplomatic through the State [Department] on where we decide to go."
At present, though, Hecker said there are few signs of tension between the Nigerien military and the U.S. troops on the ground.
"Right now, we're not going anywhere," he said. "Right now, there's not a need to go anywhere."
"That decision is not anywhere close to being made yet," Hecker added. "We have weeks, if not much longer, before our civilian leadership is going to give an order."