The New York Times reports today that the Pentagon is planning to install drone base in Niger, a move that almost certainly guarantees a long-term U.S. presence in North Africa. The official purpose of the base would be as a launching pad for unarmed surveillance flights to support French forces in Mali. However, it doesn't take much imagination to find other uses for such an outpost or the planes that are based there.
The United States currently has only has one permanent installation in Africa, another drone base in Djiboti. That outpost grows larger every year and is the main staging point for most of the armed drone attacks on Yemen. While that base allows Americans to easily reach Somalia, Sudan, and most of the Arabian peninsula, and their European bases allow them to reach the Sahara, having a permanent base in the heart of the region would allow them to make more flights, more often, and respond immediately to threats and developing situations. The Times's Eric Schmitt reports that officials "have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point" based out of the new base.
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.