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Khalifa Haftar: The former exile who wants to rule Libya

June 11, 2020 at 9:00 am

Libya Chief of Staff, Marshall Khalifa Haftar arrives for a conference in Palermo, Italy on 12 November 2018 [Flippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images]

Self-styled field marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), is a man with two interdependent missions. The first one is to rule Libya, while the second is to re-write a paragraph of his CV. This would be far easier; however, it depends on him becoming president. Both missions now seem like a distant dream, leaving Haftar in his labyrinth. His future is no longer as secure as it was three months ago.

To Haftar, the 2011 civil war was an opportunity to edit his CV, and he jumped on it. He left Langley, Virginia in the US, to join the rebels and merge with the NATO-supported rebellion that eventually toppled his ex-boss, Muammar Gaddafi. This Langley connection is deeper than it appears, as it authenticates his work with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), near which Haftar lived for over two decades. The spy agency referred to him as an “asset” — a term used in the secret spying world to mean someone who is not an official agent, but rather a reserve individual for specific operations.  He cooperated earnestly to overthrow his former boss, the late Gaddafi, with whom he fell out with during the Chad-Libyan war. Haftar became a prisoner of war in 1987 and Gaddafi, trying to cover his tracks, denied having any soldiers in Chad, let alone his top lieutenant as prisoner.

The CIA moved in to evacuate Haftar, along with a few of his subordinates, from a Chadian jail and took them to the US and started plotting to overthrow Gaddafi. Hence how he became an asset. That mission never saw the light of day, and the humiliated Haftar became referred to as a “traitor” in his own country, even being sentenced to death by a court martial. This rather shameful experience was printed onto Haftar’s CV, and he has been hoping to delete it ever since.

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In the 1980s, the late Gaddafi was the US’ public enemy number one, and the CIA was actively seeking him. Haftar, then a young officer, seemed a logical recruit to help. With the agency’s financial and material support, Haftar took part in a couple of attempts to get rid of Gaddafi, including one in 1996 in which he was directly involved. All ended in failure.

This connection to the US is what he is seeking to delete from his experience as a military officer, and a Libyan too.  Many believe his link to the CIA, which also earned him US citizenship, was not his choice but rather came by default. But, in the process, he lost his military honour and became a pawn of the enemy of his country. Those defending him also claim that he had no other alternative but to live the next 23 years, rather comfortably, nearby the CIA headquarters. Whatever the reasons behind his actions, it was a bad choice and an erratic judgement. Years later, the general seem to make more questionable judgements that would eventually see his LNA greatly defeated in his mission to take Tripoli. Most of the recent LNA setbacks in its offensive to conquer the capital, are attributed to its top commander — General Haftar himself.

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

General Khalifa Haftar taking over Libya – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

By joining the NATO-backed rebels, in April 2011, fighting Gaddafi’s government, Haftar wanted to prove his credentials as a fierce opponent to Gaddafi. This was despite their reconciliation and the fact that Gaddafi bought him a luxury villa in a Cairo suburb in the mid-2000s. However, the opposition rejected him, and by the end of 2011 he found himself jobless, but with large aspirations.

Islamists in control of Benghazi in 2013 launched a campaign of assassinations against ex-military and security officers, civilian activists and journalists; Haftar felt he must be next. Rather courageously, he re-grouped the remnants of the Libyan armed forces, who survived the seven-month NATO campaign to fight back. In 2014, he launched his Operation Dignity to rid Libya of “terrorists”, as he put it. That effort took over three years to finally claim victory over the coalition of Islamist militias, including Al-Qaeda and later Daesh, in eastern Libya.

Throughout the years, Haftar seemed to have developed what can be termed “Gaddafi personality complex” by trying, although unsuccessfully, to emulate Gaddafi’s leadership style while lacking his charisma, understanding of politics and tribal tactics. This hinderance would occasionally surface, earning him more scorn than respect. At some point, after his costly Benghazi victory, he seemed to gain popularity across the country as a savior from all militias dominating Libya since 2011. But much of that has eroded as the war dragged on.

READ: Is dividing Libya a possible compromise to end the conflict? 

Launching his campaign to take Tripoli, on 4 April 2019, he believed it would only be a matter of days before acquiring the capital. He miscalculated both, politically and militarily, due to his stubbornness. Even his Russian allies would question his leadership style and military tactics. He never visited his troops during the war, nor cities that supported him throughout the war. His loses in western Libya, many believe, were due to Russia’s desire to punish him by ordering the Wagner mercenaries fighting for him to withdraw, rather than continue to fight. This explains why the mercenaries were flown out by Russian airplanes after they left Tarhuna, while other withdrawing forces were not.

Politically, he did not appreciate Turkey’s commitment to the Tripoli government, when compared with his foreign backers’ commitment to him.

Now, the LNA has pushed back, almost to its pre-4 April positions, losing all military gains it made in its thirteen-month offensive. Haftar’s foreign backers, particularly Russia, must be discussing his future, since the Tripoli authority is refusing to deal with him anymore. Haftar does not like to be questioned by the media, and never listens to his advisors when they dare to speak. He completely ignores his political allies and looks down on them, including the parliament which gave him legitimacy in the first place. His ambition of ruling Libya and that paragraph of his CV will continue to haunt him — with a dose of Gaddafi’s curse too.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.