US builds drone base in Niger, crossroads of extremism fight

In this photo taken Monday, April 16, 2018, a US and Niger flag are raised side by side at the base camp for air forces and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger. (AP)
Updated 23 April 2018
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US builds drone base in Niger, crossroads of extremism fight

  • On the scorching edge of the Sahara Desert, the US Air Force is building a base for armed drones, the newest front in America’s battle against the growing extremist threat in Africa’s vast Sahel region
  • The $110 million project is the largest troop labor construction project in US history - it will cost $15 million annually to operate

AGADEZ: On the scorching edge of the Sahara Desert, the US Air Force is building a base for armed drones, the newest front in America’s battle against the growing extremist threat in Africa’s vast Sahel region.
Three hangars and the first layers of a runway command a sandy, barren field. Niger Air Base 201 is expected to be functional early next year. The base, a few miles outside Agadez and built at the request of Niger’s government, will eventually house fighter jets and MQ-9 drones transferred from the capital Niamey. The drones, with surveillance and added striking capabilities, will have a range enabling them to reach a number of West and North African countries.
Few knew of the American military’s presence in this desperately poor, remote West African country until October, when an ambush by Daesh group-linked extremists killed four US soldiers and five Nigeriens.
The $110 million project is the largest troop labor construction project in US history, according to Air Force officials. It will cost $15 million annually to operate.
Citing security reasons, no official will say how many drones will be housed at the base or whether more US personnel will be brought to the region. Already the US military presence here is the second largest in Africa behind the sole permanent US base on the continent, in the tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti.
The drones at the base are expected to target several different Al-Qaeda and Daesh group-affiliated fighters in countries throughout the Sahel, a sprawling region just south of the Sahara, including the area around Lake Chad, where the Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency has spread.
As the US puts drones at the forefront of the fight against extremists, some worry that civilians will be mistaken for fighters.
“We are afraid of falling back into the same situation as in Afghanistan, with many mistakes made by American soldiers who did not always know the difference between a wedding ceremony and a training of terrorist groups,” said Amadou Roufai, a Nigerien administration official.
Civic leader Nouhou Mahamadou also expressed concerns.
“The presence of foreign bases in general and American in particular is a serious surrender of our sovereignty and a serious attack on the morale of the Nigerien military,” he said.
The number of US military personnel in Niger has risen over the past few years from 100 to 800, the second largest concentration in Africa after the 4,000 in Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. About 500 personnel are working on the new air and drone base and the base camp is marked with an American and Nigerien flag.
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are crucial in the fight against extremism, US Africa Command spokeswoman Samantha Reho said.
“The location in Agadez will improve US Africa Command’s capability to facilitate intelligence-sharing that better supports Niger and other partner nations, such as Nigeria, Chad, Mali and other neighbors in the region and will improve our capability to respond to regional security issues,” Reho said.
The intelligence gathered by the drones can be used by Niger and other US partners for prosecuting extremists, said Commander Brad Harbaugh, who is in charge of the new base.
Some in Niger welcome the growing US military presence in the face of a growing extremist threat in the region.
“Northern Mali has become a no man’s land, southern Libya is an incubator for terrorists and northeastern Nigeria is fertile ground for Boko Haram’s activities ... Can Niger alone ensure its own security? I think not. No country in the world can today alone fight terrorism,” said Souleymane Abdourahmane, a restaurant promoter in the capital, Niamey.
Threats include Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Mali and Burkina Faso, Daesh group-affiliated fighters in Niger, Mali and Nigeria and the Nigeria-based Boko Haram. They take advantage of the vast region’s widespread poverty and countries’ often poorly equipped security forces.
Foreigners, including a German aid worker kidnapped this month in Niger, have been targeted as well.
The US military’s use of armed drones comes as its special forces pull back from the front lines of the fight. The focus is changing to advising and assisting local partners higher up the chain of command, said US Special Command Africa commander Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks.
Ibrahim Maiga, a Mali-based researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, said more needs to be known about the US military presence in the region.
“The US military footprint in the Sahel is difficult to grasp, just as it is not easy to assess its effectiveness,” he said. “There isn’t nearly enough information in the public space on this presence.”
Mud homes line the barbed wire fence at the edge of the main airport in Agadez. Residents watch the US forces come and go with curiosity.
Shebu Issa, an assistant at a Qur’anic school, stood in one doorway as goats and children roamed the sandy roads.
“It’s no big deal to us, they come and they don’t bother us. We appreciate they want to help in the fight,” he said. “We live a hard life, and don’t make much money, so we hope maybe this will help us get more.”


Usman Buzdar becomes Punjab chief minister

Updated 19 August 2018
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Usman Buzdar becomes Punjab chief minister

  • PTI candidate bags 186 votes while PML-N secures 159
  • Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) was in power in Punjab for past 10 years

LAHORE: Ending the decade-long dominance of the Sharif family, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) nominee, Sardar Usman Buzdar, has been elected chief minister of Punjab, the biggest province in the country.

In the election on Sunday in the Punjab Assembly, Usman Buzdar secured 186 votes — the minimum required number to become the leader of the House consisting of 371 members.

His rival, Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, son of former three-time Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif, could bag only 159 votes.

The seven members of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) abstained from the process.

The PML-Q legislators and Rah-e-Haq party members also voted for the PTI candidate.

The win of the PTI nominee, Sardar Usman Buzdar, has ended the 30-year supremacy of the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) in the political realm of the province.

The PML-N ruled the province from 1988 to 1990 when the elder Sharif, Mian Nawaz Sharif, served as the chief minister and gave a tough time to his political rival, the late Benazir Bhutto, who was then prime minister.

The PML-N then formed the government in the province in 1993 and Ghulam Hyder Wyne was the party nominee for the slot of chief minister.

The PML-N again gained power in 1997 and the younger Sharif, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, became chief minister of the province.

The ruled continued until the bloodless coup of Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

During Gen. Musharraf’s regime, Chaudhary Pervaiz Elahi served as the chief minister from 2002 to 2007.

PML-N regained its glory in the 2008 elections and Mian Shahbaz Sharif became the chief minister. The rule continued for two consecutive terms (2008-20013 and 2013-18) — 10 years.

In the 2018 election, though, the PML-N emerged as the single largest party in the province by securing 129 seats but the number was not enough to form the government and on Sunday PTI candidate Buzdar ended their supremacy in Punjab politics.

The Punjab chief minister-elect, Usman Buzdar, comes from the downtrodden area of South Punjab and holds a master’s degree in political science and a law degree from the Bahauddin Zakaria University, Multan.

His father, Sardar Fateh Mohammed Buzdar, was a member of General Ziaul Haq’s cabinet known as “Majlis-e-Shoora” in 1983 and was elected MPA as an independent candidate in 1985.

He again won the provincial assembly seat in the 2002 and 2008 elections.

In 2013, son Usman Buzdar replaced father, Fateh Mohammed Buzdar, to contest a provincial assembly seat as a PML-N candidate and lost.

Buzdar, however, served as the Nazim of Tribal Area Tehsil of Dera Ghazi Khan district for two terms in Gen. Musharraf’s era.

His career was tarnished with corruption and he was charged as a reference containing allegations of making ghost appointments was made against him.

However, Buzdar’s brother says the National Accountability Bureau cleared him from all charges after investigations.

During the 1998 local government elections, in a bloody clash between two political rival groups, one of them led by Buzdar family, six people were killed.

Father and son (Fateh Mohammed Buzdar and Usman Buzdar) were not present on the scene but the opponents nominated them in the police report on the allegations of abetment.

They were exonerated in the police Investigations but their opponents did not accept it.

Following the tribal traditions, a jirga (tribal council) levied a fine of 6.5 million Pakistani rupees ($52,700) on the Buzdar clan and the money was paid to their rivals by the Buzdars.

The PTI ranks criticized the nomination of Buzdar but party chairman Imran Khan himself defended him, saying that the chosen chief minister for Punjab comes from one of the most underdeveloped areas of the province, where people had neither clean drinking water nor an uninterrupted supply of electricity.

Khan said in his video message that Buzdar was the only parliamentarian “whose home had no electricity,” and the PTI chief hoped he would work honestly and implement his party’s vision.

Buzdar was a member of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), a party led by Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain, before joining the PML-N in 2013.

He left the PML-N in May 2018 and became a part of Sooba Janobi Punjab Mohaz (South Punjab Province Front).

The whole group later merged in the PTI and Buzdar became a player of Imran Khan and won PP-286 (DG Khan) with more than 26,000 votes on a PTI ticket.

Soon after the announcement of his success, the PML-N legislators, wearing black armbands, chanted slogans against him — “Killer chief minister unacceptable and give respect to vote.”

The protest continued for 20 minutes.

The chief minister-elect, in his maiden address in the assembly, said his only merit is that he belongs to the most deprived area of the province and he vowed to carry forward the mission of Imran Khan and Quaid-e-Azam.

“My priority is to break the status quo, elimination of corruption, strengthening of institutions and local bodies and evolve the good governance,” Buzdar said.

Speaking on the occasion, Hamza Shahbaz, who lost the election, said that the mandate of the people had been stolen in the July 25 elections.

“We are here with heavy hearts and becoming part of the process only because we want the process of democracy to continue,” Hamza said.

He demanded a parliamentary commission to probe the irregularities of the electoral process and submit its recommendations in 30 days.