WASHINGTON - Plans to base unarmed American surveillance drones in the African nation of Niger highlight the Obama administration's growing concern about extremist influences in the volatile region. They also raise tough questions about how to contain al-Qaida and other militant groups without committing U.S. ground forces in yet another war.
In the short run, a drone base would enable the U.S. to give France more intelligence on the militants that French troops are fighting in neighboring Mali. Over time it could extend the reach not only of American intelligence gathering but also U.S. special operations missions to strengthen Niger's own security forces.
The U.S. and Niger in recent days signed a "status of forces agreement" spelling out legal protections and obligations of American forces that might operate in Niger in the future.
Pentagon spokesman George Little acknowledged the agreement, but declined Tuesday to discuss U.S. plans for a military presence in Niger.
"They expressed a willingness to engage more closely with us, and we are happy to engage with them," Little said, adding that the legal agreement was months in the making and saying it was unrelated to the recent fighting in Mali.
The U.S. has found some of its efforts to fight extremists hobbled by some African governments, whose own security forces are ill-equipped to launch an American-style hunt for the militants yet are reluctant to accept U.S. help because of fears the Americans will overstay their welcome and trample their sovereignty.
At France's request, the U.S. has flown 17 Air Force transport flights to move French troops and their equipment to Mali in recent days, Little said. U.S. aircraft also are conducting aerial refueling of French fighter jets based in Mali, he said, and those operations will continue.
Other U.S. officials said the Pentagon is planning a new drone base in northwestern Africa - most likely in Niger - but the plans are not yet complete. It would provide more extended U.S. aerial surveillance of militants in the region without risking the loss of air crews. The main U.S. drone base in Africa is in Djibouti in East Africa.
Niger has accepted the idea of hosting unarmed U.S. drones as well as conventional and special operations troops to advise and assist Niger's military on border security, but it has not endorsed armed U.S. Predator strikes or the launching of U.S. special operations raids from their territory, according to a senior U.S. military official briefed on the matter. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
Africa is increasingly a focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, even as al-Qaida remains a threat in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. The recent terrorist attack on a natural gas complex in Algeria, in which at least 37 hostages and 29 militants were killed, illustrated the threat posed by extremists who have asserted power propelled by long-simmering ethnic tensions in Mali and the revolution in Libya.
A number of al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist groups operate in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahara, including a group known as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which originated in Algeria and is active in northern Mali. Earlier this month French forces intervened to stop the extremists' move toward Mali's capital, and Washington has grown more involved by providing a variety of military support to French troops.
In Addis Ababa on Tuesday, several African and Western nations pledged more than $450 million to fund an African-led military force to fight Islamist extremists in the Mali. And Britain announced it had offered to send up to 200 military officers to help train a West African force in Mali, including as many as 40 who could be sent as part of a European Union training mission of 500 personnel.
African nations including Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Gambia and others lined up with developed countries including the United States, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom to pledge money for the military effort. The U.S. share is to be $96 million, pending congressional approval.
As for al-Qaida-linked groups operating in Mali and elsewhere in northern Africa, the issue for the Obama administration is the degree to which they threaten U.S. security interests.
"AQIM poses a threat in the region, and I can't rule out the possibility that AQIM poses a threat to U.S. interests," Little said. "This is a group that has shown its ability to demonstrate brutality and to conduct attacks. And it is very important that we work with our partners in the region and our allies to thwart them."
Army Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, said last week that the worry is not just the intentions of AQIM but the ability of like-minded groups to leverage their capabilities by working together.
"We're starting to see the increasing collaboration, sharing of funding, sharing recruiting efforts, sharing of weapons and explosives and certainly a sharing of ideology that is expanding and connecting these various organizations," Ham said at Howard University. "And I think that's what poses at least the greatest immediate threat in the region."
The administration has ruled out sending U.S. ground forces to Mali. Its view is that military involvement, while necessary, is not a solution to the region's problems.
"We have said all along that there has to be more than a purely security solution to the problems in Mali, that the security track and the political track have to go hand-in-hand, that a key component of returning stability to Mali includes new elections and overturning the results of the coup firmly," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Monday. She was referring to the coup last spring that prompted the U.S. to withdraw military trainers and cut off other forms of direct military assistance.
Some of the Malian troops that had received U.S. training wound up siding with the rebels in the north, and others who remained loyal to the government proved incapable of standing their ground against the militants.
Adm. Bill McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a Washington conference on Tuesday that the key to future U.S. training operations like that is to ensure that the effort is long-lasting.
"We had an episodic presence in Mali," McRaven said, "and while I don't know if a persistent presence would have changed our relationship with the Malian forces -- whether they would have exponentially gotten better or not. "But in order to work with a host country, you really have to have that persistent presence."
Associated Press writers Writer Kimberly Dozier and Pauline Jelinek in Washington and Kirubel Tadesse in Ethiopia contributed to this report.