A U.S. military official says the Pentagon is considering setting up a drone base in northwest Africa to increase intelligence collection on Islamic militants in the region.
The official says the U.S. signed an agreement Monday that would set the rules for greater American military presence in the nation of Niger, which would be the most likely location for any new drone base. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no final decision has been made.
If the plan is approved, the base could have up to 300 U.S. military personnel.
Americans are already in Niger, training local forces. But a greater presence and a drone operation there would position the U.S. to provide more help to French and Malian troops fighting al-Qaida-backed fighters in neighboring Mali.
According to the Washington Post, the United States currently has only has one permanent installation in Africa - a drone base in Djiboti. While that growing outpost is the main staging point for armed drone attacks on Yemen, and allows Americans reach Somalia, Sudan and the Arabian peninsula, a new, permanent base in the heart of North Africa would allow Americans greater flexibility to conduct more flights and respond more rapidly to threats. Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reports that officials "have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point" based out of the new base.
As Dashiell Bennett writes at The Atlantic, a new US base "almost certainly guarantees a long-term U.S. presence in North Africa." And continues:
It would also send a clear signal that the U.S. now considers North Africa to be a theater in the never-ending, non-declared war on terror (with lowercase letters). Now that Afghanistan and Iraq are officially "over," the focus appears to be moving West, to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to the ethnic and religious violence in Nigeria, to the scattered militias in Libya, and toward terrorist attackers like those who hit the Algeria gas facility this month. This just continues the pattern of the Sahara region drawing more and more of America's military resources and attention. And history shows that once the Pentagon establishes a presence in an foreign country, it becomes almost impossible to get them to leave.
It also proves that drones will continue to be the preferred first line of defense overseas. The Times also reports that Americans have already signed a "status of forces" agreement with Niger, the likely location of the new base. There are still several steps of approval to go through, but the wheels are in motion, and it won't be long before the drones will be in the sky.
TheContributor.com's Rob Tornoe contributed to this story.