Newsmaker: Khalifa Haftar

Libya's latest army commander is easily the country's most polarising figure - an old hand whose political and military motives remain unknown.

The ambitious Khalifa Haftar was appointed army commander in Libya. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod
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To supporters, Khalifa Haftar is the charismatic fighter against extremist militias that have brought chaos four years after the country’s Arab Spring revolution. To his enemies, Haftar is nothing less than the embodiment of Muammar Qaddafi.

For Haftar himself, the appointment is the realisation of ambition nursed through decades of struggle – the 72-year-old general is finally king of all he surveys. Enigmatic, stern and fond of designing his own uniforms, Haftar insists he is on a mission to save Libya. But even supporters are left wondering if his ambitions extend beyond the military, and whether he nurtures the dream of copying the example of Egypt’s former military commander Abdel Fattah El Sisi in becoming president. Now, for better or worse, Libyans are about to find out.

Controversy has been a constant in Haftar’s life, starting in 1969 when, as a young officer, he supported Qaddafi’s coup that deposed King Idris Al Sanusi. The coup was intended to clean out a rotten and corrupt monarchy and replace it with leaders committed to justice and fairness. Like most such coups, Qaddafi’s quickly degenerated into one of the most vicious and erratic of the world’s tyrannies. Opponents were hung from lampposts, tortured in hellhole prisons or slaughtered in their thousands.

Under Qaddafi, Haftar at first prospered. In 1973, he led Libya’s small contingent supporting Egyptian forces in their war with Israel. A decade later, he led Qaddafi’s disastrous invasion of Chad. In 1987, Chadian forces, backed by America and France, routed Qaddafi’s troops and captured Haftar.

Stuck in a prisoner-of-war cage, Haftar was disowned by ­Qaddafi, and when the Central Intelligence Agency offered him the chance to lead an ­anti-Qaddafi force, he jumped at the opportunity.

The CIA’s plan was inspired by the success of the Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro, who landed in Cuba in 1956 with just 81 men, and in three years overthrew the government. Around the world, the CIA formed similar cadres of fighters and Haftar’s group was no exception, never rising beyond 400 members. But they never got their chance. Qaddafi became paranoid about security, snuffing out dissent. After being decanted around Africa, the force was brought to America and disbanded in 1990.

Back in Libya, armed resistance to Qaddafi came via the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which fought and lost an armed uprising in the eastern Green Mountains. Haftar, no longer a soldier, settled in Falls Church, Virginia, a stone’s throw from the CIA headquarters, and raised a family. And there he might have stayed, one more forgotten exile, except that in 2011 there came the Arab Spring.

When revolt broke out in Libya, Haftar rushed back, hoping to take command of the rebel army. But his ambitions were thwarted, with the rebels preferring Qaddafi’s recently defected interior minister, Abdul Fatah Younes, who brought with him an interior ministry brigade. Haftar was also in competition with other former LIFG exiles, returning to enjoy powerful backers and plenty of eager young volunteers. Even the assassination of Younes by extremists that summer did not open up command to Haftar, who had no win over the powerful western militias of Misrata and Zintan, which captured Tripoli and won the war.

Haftar moved to Tripoli with his own militia, confusingly named the Libyan National Army, only to clash with the Zintan militias in a failed attempt to capture the Tripoli airport. Shortly afterwards, Zintan militiamen shot and wounded one of Haftar’s sons. To many, Haftar’s ambitions looked to be over, and he vanished into the political ­wilderness.

But Haftar had a trump card – the bonds he had formed decades before with army and air-force officers. These officers had resented Qaddafi for diverting resources to the dictatorship’s special brigades. Now they resented the new government, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which diverted resources to its militia, the Libya Shield.

By February 2014, the country was in chaos, with the National Congress refusing to call ­elections after its term limit expired. Haftar appeared on television in full uniform to announce what sounded like a coup, declaring Congress null and void. In the hours afterwards, nothing happened; no army units answered Haftar’s call, and he appeared to have missed his chance.

But as the months passed, and still no election was called, Haftar’s popularity grew. In May, he launched the self-proclaimed Operation Dignity, vowing to rid Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood and its militias, which he labelled terrorists. Zintanis, now allied with him, stormed Congress, while his Libyan National Army, backed by regular forces, attacked militias in Benghazi, Libya’s second city.

Congress bowed to the inevitable and called elections for June. When Muslim Brotherhood candidates took steep losses, they rebelled, fearing retribution at the hands of their enemies. Libya Shield transformed itself into Libya Dawn and captured Tripoli in six weeks of fighting, with the newly elected House of Representatives fleeing to the eastern city of Tobruk.

At first the new parliament kept Haftar at arm’s length, fearing he would be their political rival. But in the months that followed, Libya lurched into civil war – Haftar’s Operation Dignity battling Libya Dawn. The battle for Benghazi turned into a slugging match, and for old hands on both sides, it was a rerun of the battles between the LIFG and army, fought two decades before.

Through the winter, Haftar built support and parliament found that the small regular army and air force took orders from Haftar, not the politicians. While many are lukewarm about Haftar, support for Dignity and its opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood is widespread. Pro-government protests are notable for the high number of Dignity banners and sparsity of placards supporting the general himself. “For many Libyans, Haftar is their Patton,” said one diplomat. “Many support what he is doing, but they don’t want him seizing power.”

By the turn of the year, Haftar’s forces had attained military superiority thanks to an expanding air force reportedly supplied by Egypt. Air strikes smashed militant brigades in Benghazi, pushing them back into small enclaves. Hundreds were killed and sections of the city turned to rubble. A Libya Dawn offensive to capture eastern oil ports was also repulsed.

A peace deal might have pulled the rug out from under Haftar, but when the UN envoy, Bernardino León, held peace talks in Geneva in January, Libya Dawn refused to turn up. As the destruction multiplied, bitterness cut away the middle ground needed for any mediation effort. And then came ISIL. Since January, the terror group has battled both Libya Dawn and government forces, and provoked Egyptian air strikes.

With the war worsening, ISIL spreading and no sign of help from the international community, Tobruk’s attitude, like its Dawn adversaries, has hardened. With that has come the decision to formalise Haftar’s power. The decision to reinstate him into the army and make him its ­commander is a blunt recognition of reality. Haftar is already leading pro-government forces, and it is he, rather than the ­appointed prime minister Abdullah Al Thinni, whom they turn to for instructions.

Haftar has achieved this personal following by being unusually forthright. Libyan politicians, on all sides, are characteristically cautious, often seeming to hedge their bets. Not Haftar. He has declared that he left a comfortable family life only because supporters urged him to save Libya, portraying his struggle as manifest destiny.

Over the months, he has set, and missed, deadlines to capture Benghazi and roll onto Tripoli, but with equipment pouring in from Egypt, he is confident Dignity forces now have the edge. His appointment has probably torpedoed what slim chances there are of a peace settlement: Libya Dawn is unlikely to sit at the same table as the man they label a terrorist.

“For those who support the Geneva process, efforts to create a unity government, Haftar’s appointment is a setback,” says John Hamilton, of the ­London-based risk analysts Cross Border Information. “His appointment shows the extent to which the Thinni government now sees the resolution of the crisis in Libya as being achieved through military means.”

In case anyone doubted his commitment, Haftar followed his assumption of army command with two days of air strikes against Libya Dawn’s main airbase. Whether the general has political ambitions beyond his military role is a question for later. For now, one of the few things on which both sides can agree is that his appointment means Libya has entered the time of deep war.