The Controversial Strongman behind Libya’s Descent into Chaos

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is an analyst and journalist specializing in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a comedic email list about the Middle East that you can join here.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The United States tried to overthrow Muammar al-Gaddafi, dictator of Libya since 1969, for decades. In 1986, US President Ronald Reagan bombed Libya while the United Nations implemented sanctions against the embattled strongman. In 2011, US President Barack Obama assisted Libyan rebels battling al-Gaddafi’s military. Unlike Reagan, however, Obama would succeed: the rebels killed al-Gaddafi in his hometown of Sirte before launching a provisional government that has become one of three competing Libyan governments. One has allied itself with a former American agent.

Khalifa Haftar, part of al-Gaddafi’s inner circle, found himself a prisoner of war (POW) in Chad in late 1980s. Libya had long sought to conquer Chad, its southern neighbour with a population twice Libya’s, and Haftar had suffered one of his country’s many defeats. As Haftar grew embittered with al-Gaddafi during his brief stint in a POW camp, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited him and — after failing to oust al-Gaddafi in the early 1990s — moved Haftar to Northern Virginia. In 2011, Haftar, though comfortable in his home near the George Bush Center for Intelligence, decided to return to Libya for good.

Since 2011, Haftar has evolved into one of Libya’s most divisive public figures. The US, which used to sponsor him, now considers him an irritant. Haftar has expressed little interest in the UN’s attempts to achieve a political settlement to the factionalism that has plagued Libya since 2011, frustrating the international community, which would prefer to focus on crises in North Korea and Syria. “Haftar is not interested in democracy”, a former official from the US State Department told The Washington Post in August 2016. “I don’t even think he’s particularly interested in peace”.

Haftar perceives himself through a messiah complex, describing himself as saving Libya from civil war, terrorism, and itself. “Everyone told me the same thing”, he said in an interview with The New Yorker in early 2015. “‘We are looking for a savior. Where are you?’ I told them, ‘If I have the approval of the people, I will act.'” Now that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) have made Libya one of their many homes, Haftar bills himself as an anti-Islamist strongman. He has aligned himself with the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, fighting militias in Benghazi and Derna.

After the HoR replaced the General National Congress in August 2014, it became the de facto representative of the Libyan state until the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA). The GNA is an interim government, which was formed by the signature of a political agreement in December 2015. Because this agreement has been based on a UN-led initiative and unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council, the GNA is Libya’s only legitimate government recognized by the UN. In December 2015, the Chairman of the Libyan House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh Issathe declared his support for the political agreement. Later, in Summer 2016, the HoR withdrew its recognition of the GNA in a vote. Until Summer 2016, Britain, France, and the US did support Haftar in his war against Islamists, even if he has refused to support the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli (Karim El-Bar, “Leaked Tapes Expose Western Support for Renegade Libyan General“, Middle East Eye, 8 July 2018). Italy, whose colonial empire controlled Libya until World War II, has also courted the controversial warlord. However, the break between the GNA and the HoR resulted to an end of the support of Haftar by Western states. For example, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which oversees the US’s involvement in the Libyan Civil War, denied a relationship with Haftar.

According to the political agreement of December 2015, the Presidential Council presides over the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli. The GNA should be endorsed by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which would become the legitimate legislative authority in the Libyan government, but on two occasions the House of Representatives has voted down the list of ministers (Mary Fitzgerald and Mattia Toaldo, „A quick guide to Libya’s main players“, European Council on Foreign Relations, 2017).

According to the political agreement of December 2015, the Presidential Council presides over the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli. The GNA should be endorsed by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which would become the legitimate legislative authority in the Libyan government, but on two occasions the House of Representatives has voted down the list of ministers (Mary Fitzgerald and Mattia Toaldo, “A quick guide to Libya’s main players“, European Council on Foreign Relations, 2017).

However, AFRICOM has launched airstrikes against ISIS affiliates and other militants throughout Libya, trying to balance counterterrorism with conflict resolution in the country. The last airstrike, the first time against an affiliate of al-Qaeda, took place in coordination with the GNA near Ubari in late March as the US continues to fight its oldest foe in the War on Terror. “As part of the overall US government effort, US Africa Command remains committed to working with Libya and our international partners to help resolve the political conflict and advance stabilization in Libya”, Samantha Reho, an AFRICOM spokeswoman, told Offiziere.ch in an email.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have fewer qualms about Haftar. Egypt has conducted airstrikes to assist the warlord in his campaign to conquer Derna, and the UAE has provided him covert close air support. Haftar has done his best to take advantage of the proxy war in Libya, even traveling to Russia, which has provided him at least three billion dollars’ worth of support in Libyan currency and the help of Russian technicians, who refit, renew, and upgrade the military capabilities of the Libyan National Army, which almost entirely relies on Soviet weaponry (see also Lincoln Pigman and Kyle Ortin, “Inside Putin’s Libyan Power Play“, Foreign Policy, 14.09.2017). The support of Haftar represents Russian’s double standard. As a member of the UN Security Council, Russia endorsed the GNA, but supports now Haftar, which is fighting against the GNA and which is involvement in war crimes in Benghazi and Derna. Haftar captured Benghazi from Islamist militias in July 2017, and he has besieged Derna for over a year, alarming aid agencies.

Nevertheless, Haftar may find that his foray into politics will encounter a few problems. Critics have accused his son of looting the Central Bank of Libya’s branch in Benghazi after Haftar captured the city. He has also set preconditions for negotiations with the GNA, threatening to unravel what little remains of Libya’s stability. The warlord has come far since his time as a Gaddafi stooge and POW, but he has much further to go, if he wants to return to the halls of power in Tripoli. For now, he must remain in the east of a country that, as a CIA asset, he abandoned for over two decades. Haftar has a ways to go to power.

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The social order in Libya has broken down. You have massive protests against Qaddafi. You’ve got tribal divisions inside of Libya. Benghazi is a focal point for the opposition regime. And Qaddafi is marching his army toward Benghazi, and he has said, ‘We will kill them like rats.’ Now, option one would be to do nothing, and there were some in my administration who said, as tragic as the Libyan situation may be, it’s not our problem. The way I looked at it was that it would be our problem if, in fact, complete chaos and civil war broke out in Libya. But this is not so at the core of U.S. interests that it makes sense for us to unilaterally strike against the Qaddafi regime. At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game. Free riders. So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight. And we worked with our defense teams to ensure that we could execute a strategy without putting boots on the ground and without a long-term military commitment in Libya. So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion — which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess. — Barack Obama, cited in Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine: The U.S. President Talks through His Hardest Decisions about America’s Role in the World“, The Atlantic, April 20016).

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Update April 12, 2018:
We had nothing to do with it; I promise! Libyan military chief Khalifa Haftar severely ill after stroke. According to France 24, he was rushed to the Jordanian capital of Amman after losing consciousness in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi and was later transferred to a Paris hospital, after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. However, a spokesman of the Libyan National Army told the Libyan Al-Nabaa TV station that Haftar was fine and in good condition. The spokesman denied all reports of Haftar suffering a stroke or a heart attack.

 

This entry was posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Libya, Politics in General, Security Policy.

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