By Ali Abuzaakouk, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Libyan Government of National Salvation
At the onset of the Libyan Revolution in February 2011, Colonel (General) Khalifa Haftar, who had been living comfortably in exile in suburban Virginia for two decades, returned to Libya with the blessing of the United States to finally get vengeance against Muammar Gaddafi, his former confidant turned enemy after he and several hundred of his men were abandoned in Chad by the eccentric dictator following a failed military operation in the 1980s. It is a well-known fact, though rarely reported in western media, that Haftar had strong ties with the CIA and that his return to Libya in early 2011 coincided with a NATO-led intervention for regime change in the country.
In 1969, Haftar joined Gaddafi in a coup against Libya’s King Idris, which thrust Gaddafi to power for the next 42 years. Haftar quickly became a top military officer in Gaddafi’s regime, and in the 1980s, he was appointed the commander of the Libyan forces during the country’s invasion of its southern neighbor Chad. A surprise attack by French and American-backed Chadian forces in 1987 on Libya’s heavily fortified air base in Chad, left more than a 1000 Libyan fighters dead and about 600 soldiers, including Haftar, taken as prisoners of war. Gaddafi initially denied that Libyan troops were in Chad, effectively disavowing Haftar and his men. The US took the opportunity to approach the embittered commander about establishing a militia with the sole purpose of overthrowing Gaddafi.
Soon after he was freed from the Chadian prison, Haftar set up the anti-Gaddafi armed wing of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), calling it the Libyan National Army (LNA) - which is the same evasive name he uses now to refer to his post-revolution militia based in eastern Libya, and consisting of mainly former Gaddafi loyalists. Haftar was granted political asylum and US citizenship. He lived in Virginia for 21 years, only five miles from the CIA’s headquarters in Langley. During that period, the former Gaddafi loyalist turned rebel received training in guerilla warfare by the CIA and reportedly pursued LNA activities from the US.
The CIA’s many attempts over the next 20 years at eliminating Gaddafi failed, until the 2011 Libyan revolution, which was inspired by the Arab Spring revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, presented itself to be the ideal time for the US and its NATO allies to become directly involved in the Libyan people’s call for regime change by “helping” steer the rebellion. Despite Haftar’s claims that he returned to Libya because he simply wanted to take part in the revolution against Gaddafi, it is widely believed that, being their preferred man, the US sponsored Haftar’s unlikely resurgence in the country.
Not surprisingly, becoming a commander of the rebel forces was not enough for Haftar, who after the ousting of Gaddafi in late 2011, disappeared from the scene entirely until February 14, 2014. Suddenly, Haftar, whose legacy has been associated with military coups since 1969, reappeared on TV calling for the suspension of the then-elected interim parliament, the General National Congress (GNC). However, Haftar’s theatrical attempt at staging a coup failed miserably as no one at the time took his dramatic appeal to overthrow the government seriously. Some have even suspected that Haftar fled to the American Embassy in Tripoli after his coup did not succeed.
While presenting himself as the unifier of Libya, Haftar, who refuses to relinquish his power, is in fact the country’s main spoiler to political transition. His actions show his attempts at following in the footsteps of his close ally Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi - the military general who staged a coup to overthrow the pro-Islamic, democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 - to become the Libyan equivalent to Egypt’s strongman. Like Sisi, Haftar’s rhetoric became anti-Islamist, and in May 2014 he launched “Operation Karama”, or Dignity, vowing to purge the country from extremists and terrorists, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood.
Riding the wave of popular discontent over the rampant insecurity, incessant violence, and military weakness plaguing post-revolution Libya, Haftar seized the opportunity to present himself as the country’s only savior, gaining popular support especially in the east. However, unlike last time, when Haftar appeared on television asking the Libyan army to join him, this time he chose to take action, sending his heavily armed militia, consisting mainly of former regime fighters and 32 fortified Qaddafi militia and Almagerief brigades, to storm the parliament building and attack it with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Haftar has aligned himself with some of Gaddafi’s closest aides such as Tayeb El Safi, Gaddafi’s right-hand man who was tasks with crushing the uprising in the east.
Hafter’s Egypt and UAE-backed Operation Dignity has dragged on for over two years, with no end in sight, and he continues to use it as a front to indiscriminately terrorize and kill anyone who opposes him. Publicly, he maintains that he is solely focused on fighting against extremist forces operating in Libya, under the pretext of being Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood; however, it is obvious his intentions are to further his own political interests. His ambitions have been made even more apparent after the formation of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2015, which threatened his burgeoning power. Haftar and his allies in the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) have been accused of stalling Libya’s political transition, by refusing to give an endorsement to the unity government’s cabinet until article VIII, which stipulates that the Presidency Council of the GNA is to assume the function of the Supreme Commander of the Libyan army, is removed from the Libyan Political Agreement. It is clear that Hafter has chosen to represent anti-February 17 revolution factions and will continue to be the biggest obstacle to Libya’s path forward until he can guarantee full control over Libya’s army under the new government.
Haftar’s popularity and support in Libya and abroad seems to be on the decline as he has yet to launch his much anticipated offensive against ISIS, the immediate terrorist threat in Libya, choosing instead to continue waging his war against his “Islamist” enemies in the eastern cities of Benghazi, Derna and Agedabia. Hafter has demonstrated that he has failed as a military leader, effectively leaving the real battle against extremists in Libya to the GNA-backed militias based in Misrata, while attacking the Mujahedeen Shura Council in Derna who were successful in driving out ISIS militants from their city despite constantly being derailed by Haftar’s forces.
Haftar, who is no stranger to being called a war criminal by his critics due to his alleged use of napalm and toxic gas in Chad, is again being accused of committing war crimes as the number of civilian casualties, including the indiscriminate killing of women and children, continues to rise in the wake of his Operation Dignity.
A number of militias who had previously aligned themselves with Haftar, including the eastern based Special Anti-Terrorist Force and the Military Intelligence Brigade have recently turned against the controversial army chief. In addition, choosing to no longer stay silent, some of Haftar’s former generals have put out testimonies shedding light on his war crimes, failed missions, and true intentions in Libya. In January, Mohammad Hejazi, who was Haftar’s spokesman, publicly accused his former boss of corruption and war crimes, alleging that he has deliberately prolonged Libya’s war, and targeted civilians and his opponents with a secret paramilitary force. More recently, Faraj Aqaim Alakori, said he has concrete evidence that Haftar’s forces committed assassinations in Benghazi, unlawful executions, abductions, torture, and beheadings.
Despite mounting evidence which exposes the rogue general’s true intentions and consistent direction opposite Libya’s transition to stability, the international community, including his foster country the US, has remained deafeningly quiet regarding his role in Libya’s ongoing political conflict. In fact, the US seems torn in its statements between GNA-support and Libya must have a place for Haftar.
The direct association between Haftar and the US, particularly the CIA and possibly Obama’s Administration, in today’s Libya has been a theory - though a firmly held one. However, recent leaked tapes of air traffic recordings from Benina airbase, one of Haftar’s vital military facilities, suggest Haftar receives direct US support. On one hand Washington has sanctioned Haftar’s political ally and President of the HoR, Agila Saleh Issa, for stalling the formation of the GNA and on the other hand the US is enabling Haftar with military support despite his opposition to the GNA Tripoli government.
The US’s player in Libya has lost popular support, he is alleged to have committed war crimes and is willing to do anything to keep a hold on power. It is time for the US and the international community to choose between those who are actually turning things around in Libya, including in the war against ISIS, and Haftar who is ready to destroy these parties as soon as the opportunity presents itself.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Libya Observer