Senate votes down bill to withdraw troops from Niger

by Tommy Grant

WASHINGTON ― The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly voted down a bill 11-86 that would have required President Joe Biden to withdraw U.S. troops from Niger.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., secured a vote on the bill after Niger became the latest west African country to succumb to a coup in July, when a military junta ousted and detained democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum.

“If we’re going to send someone’s son or daughter to a foreign country, if they are going to risk their life, Congress should vote on them being there,” Paul told Defense News. “They’re ruled by a military junta led by a guy that we trained in democracy training over here.”

Multiple members of the junta, most prominently Brig. Gen. Moussa Salaou Barmou who led Niger’s special operations forces and is now the chief of defense, have received U.S. military training.

The Economic Community of West African States expelled Niger from the bloc after the coup and threatened military intervention to restore Bazoum to power. But the head of Ghana’s Army staff, Maj. Gen. Thomas Oppong-Peprah, told Defense News earlier this month the bloc is now prioritizing a diplomatic effort to restore Niger’s democracy.

The State Department formally declared a coup in Niger earlier this month, suspending most U.S. assistance. However, the U.S. still has roughly 1,100 troops stationed in Niger. U.S. Africa Command in September repositioned assets and personnel away from the capital Niamey to Agadez, a drone base roughly 570 miles away.

The U.S. first stationed troops in Niger in 2013 as part of its counterterrorism mission across Africa, citing as the legal justification the 2001 military authorization Congress passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Four presidents have used the 2001 military authorization to justify more than 40 military operations in at least 19 countries across the globe, including Niger.

But Paul’s resolution, which the Senate voted down, stated the 2001 military authorization does not apply to Niger.

Islamic State militants killed four U.S. troops and four Nigeriens in a 2017 ambush.

“We had four die back in 2017, and when they did half the people who piped up didn’t even know they were there,” said Paul. “There’s also a question — there’s a drone air force base there — whether or not we should just be droning people all over Africa. Accidents happen. Sometimes you hit the right person. Sometimes you hit the wrong person.”

He pointed to a drone strike that killed an aid worker and nine other people when the Pentagon mistook him for an Islamic State operative during Biden’s 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal.

But the majority of senators argued in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Niger, despite the coup, to continue counterterrorism operations.

“The country wants American troops there stopping terrorists, providing safety, and we’re not going to abandon the Sahel part of Africa,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Ben Cardin, D-Md., told Defense News. “It is important for us to maintain our presence to work to reduce violence in the region.”

However, he stressed that “we cannot give comfort to those who’ve committed a coup,” and called for individual sanctions against the junta leaders.

Congress has shown some interest in reasserting its power over war-making authorities in recent years, but votes to withdraw troops from individual countries have repeatedly failed during the Biden administration. The House earlier this year voted down two such war powers resolutions from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.

The House in April voted 103-321 against a Gaetz resolution to withdraw several hundred U.S. troops stationed in war-torn Somalia and in March 101-321 against removing the roughly 900 troops stationed in Syria.

U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq often come under fire from Iran-backed militias operating in both countries. Those attacks have intensified since the bloody Israel-Hamas war erupted earlier this month, raising fears of a broader Middle East war.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, has started drafting legislation that would authorize Biden to attack Iran-backed proxies, including Lebanon’s paramilitary group Hezbollah, throughout the Middle East.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, has also introduced a bill that would authorize the president to attack drug cartels in Mexico, a proposal all the leading Republican presidential candidates have endorsed to varying degrees.

The House has not brought either proposal forward for a vote. For his part, Paul noted he opposes both the potential Middle East and Mexico military authorizations.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.

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