The United States is negotiating to locate a drone base in northwestern Africa, where the U.S. has a minimal military presence.
The base, for which preliminary negotiations are under way, would likely be in Niger, next door to Mali. At first, it would be a bare-bones operation: Predator surveillance drones would be unarmed and serviced by only 300 military and civilian personnel.
But the simple existence of that base marks the likely beginning of a change in the U.S. strategic posture in that part of the world. The headquarters of the military's Africa Command, or AFRICOM, is in Stuttgart, Germany, where 1,500 of the command's 2,000 personnel are based.
The drone base's initial mission would be to track the movements of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and allied Islamic terrorist organizations. If the threat worsens, and it almost surely will, the drones could be armed, the base expanded and, if Niger agrees, U.S. special-operations troops based there.
The need for the drone base was given new impetus by two recent attacks: one earlier this month on the natural gas facility in Algeria that resulted in the deaths of 37 foreigners, including three Americans, and last year's AQIM-led attack on Mali that captured its vast desert north and held three major cities in the central region for 10 months.
French troops halted the advance and recaptured the three cities in a matter of days. But the insurgents, estimated to number 5,000 to 10,000, melted back into the desert where, for the moment, they can regroup relatively unmolested.
The French would like to depart quickly, leaving the defense of Mali to the Malian army and a pan-African force led by Nigeria. But that force has been slow to materialize -- it is now an estimated 2,900 soldiers -- and its fighting effectiveness has yet to be tested.
While the French have declared their mission is accomplished, it is dawning on them that their soldiers will be in northwest Africa -- if not in Mali, at least within striking distance -- for some time yet. And with our own drone base, so will we.
McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.