In 2011, the Obama administration decided to support the overthrow of the Libyan government. Qaddafi’s government had backed terrorist groups from the 1980s, but in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Qaddafi had surrendered his nuclear program to the United States in return for security guarantees. President Obama himself reportedly resisted the push for war in Libya, but yielded to his insistent Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. In order to avoid another Iraq, the United States ‘led from behind’ and thus had few forces on the ground — and thus no ability to stabilize the wreckage. In the eight years of chaos that have followed, slave markets have sprung up. Refugees have been forced to wage war for Islamist armed groups. Millions of dollars in stolen funds needed for reconstruction have yet to be recovered.
That is the backdrop to this week’s apparently sudden move on Tripoli by a general officer in command of the self-named Libyan National Army. General Khalifa Haftar commands this force, which has already captured the nation’s crucial oil fields and is now pressing on the capital. NPR introduces Gen. Haftar as follows:
He is a general who helped to bring deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi to power way back in 1969, and then they had a falling out. And he ends up in exile in the United States where he basically lived plotting to topple Gadhafi until Gadhafi was indeed toppled and killed in 2011. Then he came back. He gathered forces, and he actually took over part of the country, eastern Libya, including Benghazi.
This is a general who has the backing of the United Arab Emirates, which is important because they have a lot of money. He also has the backing of Egypt.
So, we have a general officer with decades of knowledge of the political situation, locally powerful allies, and wealthy financial backers, long-term planning for a post-Qaddafi Libya, and control of the nation’s oil supply. These are significant assets. Gen. Haftar may be Libya’s best alternative for overcoming the legacy of the Obama administration’s involvement.
You might not get that impression from reading the press accounts. The NPR report calls him a “renegade general.” The UK Independent describes Haftar as a “warlord,” and points out that the “government” he is opposing has the backing of the United Nations. The Christian Science Monitor repeats the “warlord” title. Reuters calls him a “strongman” and says that his move represents a setback for European nations hoping to build a working government in Libya through reconciliation. The United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) evacuated American forces near the capital city, presumably to avoid becoming entangled in any fighting. Oil markets panicked — for a day.
There is a lot to unpack here. For one thing, calling the groups striving to run Libya a “government” is a little aspirational. Aside from Haftar’s LNA, which controls two-thirds of Libya, the competing groups do not actually control much land, although they do hold the capital city of Tripoli. For another, there is more than one “government” competing for control. The UN-backed New General National Congress is the one in Tripoli; the Council of Deputies exists in the far east. Haftar actually controls substantially more of Libya than either already, and — while he lacks the imprimatur of the UN or the European Union — he is backed by nearby Egypt and the wealthy UAE, as well as enjoying some support from the French.
For another thing, the oil markets have calmed substantially since the initial reports. Haftar’s control of the oil producing fields suggests stability, compared to control by the relatively weak governments who have little power to strive against militant groups. Haftar, by contrast, drove out the Islamist militants occupying Benghazi — the same ones who famously slaughtered the US mission there, then attacked a CIA outpost. Like Sisi in Egypt, Haftar would be a bulwark against radical groups such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and their ilk.
For now the United States has called upon Haftar to halt his advance. Haftar is a US citizen, however, and is thought to have well-established ties to the American government. While a fight to take the populous city of Tripoli might be a humanitarian disaster, a negotiated surrender of that city to Haftar need not be.
The United States is in many respects responsible for the chaos in Libya. It may be worth considering backing the faction most likely to bring stability back to that nation, to align it with American regional allies, and indeed with America itself. It may take time for Libya to fully flourish, but at least the days of open-air slave markets and untamed radical militants could end very soon. Once stabilized, humanitarian missions and reconstruction would be much easier to effect.