As evermore congressional hearings dominate American headlines, a shadowy leader and a massive new offensive are quietly engulfing Africa’s most oil-rich country. In a place already marred by violence, this is different. The new operation began in March and is both larger and better coordinated than anything since the 2011 revolution. Having already secured the nation’s largest oil terminals, A force of 60,000 well-equipped men are now attacking the gates of Tripoli, threatening the UN-backed government forces defending the city. If their successful, this could dramatically change the balance of power and US interests in the region.
Much of the world seems split on the situation or unaware it is happening. Egypt, the UAE, and Moscow are supporting the offensive. France and Italy- whom both have competing oil interests in Libya- have divided the EU on the matter. The UN has predictably condemned the offensive but offered no tangible solution. Meanwhile, the State Dept called for an “immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan Capital” the same week as President Trump praised the leader behind it.
The attack is being led by a former CIA asset and US citizen with a storied past. He is someone that Al-Qaeda has called “an enemy of Islam”. An old Gadhafi loyalist turned revolutionary and cunning enemy to ISIS. The polarizing figure who has helped both unify and divide modern Libya. He is managing to attack an internationally recognized government with Russian weapons and the complicity of everyone else- but who is he?
A man long prepared to exploit the chaos: “Field Marshall “Khalifa Haftar.
Post Gadhafi Libya has been a free for all since 2011. Quickly swept up in the “Arab Spring”, the authoritarian state soon found itself in a bitterly contested civil war. But not even NATO involvement or a swift end to the 42-year dictatorship could bring about peace. Whatever unified power the opposition had would fragment to the local militia, tribal councils, and Islamic groups.
Warring factions just picked up where the civil war left off, and violence soon renewed. It was in this lawless, post-revolution environment that US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three CIA contractors were killed in the now infamous Sept 11, 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.
Rather than defend US interests, the Obama Administration and the State Department under Hillary Clinton began to distance itself from the country. Most European nations followed suit -and though never officially abandoned- Libya became less strategically important than other growing conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Human smugglers and Islamic militants both exploited the void. Making this sparsely populated country (Less than 7 million people in an area 3 times the size of Texas) a hotbed of both. ISIS managed to take over entire cities and briefly enjoyed their largest territory outside of Syria and Iraq. Libya’s vast port system, proximity to Europe, and lack of border enforcement also made it the perfect launching pad for the migrant crisis which soon followed.
Any state control shifted like sand across the Sahara. The UN-Backed “Government of National Accord” (currently) run the west of the country from Tripoli. Meanwhile the “House of Representatives” (to which Haftar is aligned) govern most of the east from Tobruk. The two have a tumultuous comingled past and are not the only actors on the ground. It would take several books to explain the complexities of Libyan politics, but for all intents and purposes, the GNA and the HOR represent the different factions.
A unique backstory
Although a major player in post-revolution Libya, Haftar is still little-known outside of the country.
Not your average warlord, he is a man as complex as the north African nation itself. The dual US-Libyan citizen -who presently controls more than 75% of Libyan territory- was born in 1943 in the city of Ajdabiya, along the Mediterranean. After graduating from the Benghazi Military Academy in 1966, Haftar began his career as a young officer in the army under King Idris. He went on to take part in Gadhafi’s 1969 coup against the monarch, earning a special place among the Dictators inter circle.
His early years in the new “Libyan Arab Republic” were colorful. Politically, he became an adherent to both the socialism and Arab Nationalism which spread through the region. As a soldier, he was sent to the Soviet Union for specialized training and fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur. His ambitions now firmly tied to Gadhafi, he remained loyal through several counter-coup attempts to oust the dictator.
Haftar rose to the rank of colonel and by the early 80s, all seemed well for him. That was until Libyan forces began to lose ground in an ongoing conflict with Chad. After France (the former Colonial power) stepped up their assistance to the Chadian armed forces, the Libyans began to fall back. Haftar was captured in 1987 along with several hundred of his men. A furious Gadhafi -who also might have viewed the charismatic young Colonel as a threat- disavowed him and the soldiers under his command. Left to rot as a POW, the disgraced officer swore revenge and thus began a long, complicated road back to Tripoli.
It may not be a coincidence then that Haftar recently gave himself the rank of “Field Marshall” in Tobruk, the very city which helped turn Erwin Rommel -the German Afrika Corps Commander with the same title- into a legend. Indeed, his life bears two major similarities to his WW11 Counterpart. Both military Officers who served the wishes of flamboyant dictators- and each found themselves forsaken by their leaders. Rommel to be killed on orders of Hitler and Haftar to be disavowed on foreign soil by Gadhafi.
Unable to freely return home, he was eventually able to flee to Zaire and then Kenya. It was soon demanded that he be returned to Libya as a prisoner. The US intervened however and (seeing the potential value in Haftar) the CIA arranged refugee visas for him and 300 of his men. A comfortable twenty-year US residency for the Libyan Colonel followed. He was given full US Citizenship, raised a family, and lived along the DC beltway, just a stone throw from Langley and the Pentagon. Although remaining active in a small revolutionary group known as the “National Front for the Salvation of Libya”, it seems he spent most of these two decades just living a comfortable American life.
When the cold war ended, so too did the importance of Libya in being a key Soviet ally. Mr. Haftar’s relevance as an asset faded and he may have easily spent his golden years peacefully. That was until a wave of popular discontent swept through the Arab world. With the hint of revolution in his homeland and the possibility of revenge, the aging 68-year-old former soldier decided to return.
Coming out of retirement
Arriving a month after the uprising against the Jamahiriya Government began, He was soon named a Lieutenant General in the small but growing oppositions forces and their National Transitional Council. NATO became actively involved on the NTC’s side and Mr. Haftar suddenly found himself a useful power broker for the west once more.
The 7-month Civil war ended in October 2011 with the capture and killing of Haftar’s longtime nemesis- Gadhafi. His 25-year goal now complete, he again could have just gone back into retirement instead opting to join in the fray.
From 2012-2017 Libyan governments formed and then fragmented, separating the country between east and west. Haftar rose to become head of the new Libyan National Army, which is connected to the HOR in Tobruk. Meanwhile, several militias merge with the GNA in Tripoli to become a rival force. The lucrative “Oil Crescent” and most of the country’s 48.4 billion barrels of crude lie between them.
Both sides end up fighting IS and other militants but its Haftar’s forces who earn the most international recognition doing so. On May 16, 2014, He launches “Operation Dignity” to begin clearing “Terrorists” from Benghazi and other cities. The successful operation decimates both IS elements as well as Ansar Al-Sharia- the group behind the 9/11 US consulate attack. In response, a suicide bomber attempts to assassinate the General by charging his compound in an explosive-laden Land Rover. The attack kills two of his guards but leaves Haftar unscathed.
Fast forward to 2018, and most civilians have been fed up with the widespread corruption and lawlessness. Haftar -after launching one prior failed coup attempt on live television- tries his hand at diplomacy. He goes on a PR Campaign and spends several months conducting a town hall-style tour through much of Libya. The strong persona he evokes appeals to the public's longing for a unifying force. He also reaches out to various militia -some of them even Salafists groups- to bring them under the umbrella of the LNA. In the early months of 2019, his charm offensive goes overseas. He is reported to have also visited Russia, The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in search of weapons and support.
Call with Trump
After a call between Trump and Haftar on April 15th, the White House released a statement that the President “Recognized Field Marshall Haftar’s significant Role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system”.
Although not officially endorsing Haftar’s advance on Tripoli, many read the timing of this comment to mean the US is not going to intervene on behalf of the UN-backed Government either.
If Haftar’s forces do manage to secure Tripoli and the rest of the country, a dramatically different Libya may take root. Details are murky on his and the HOR’s ultimate goals or potential relations with the west. For the time being, they just portray the offensive itself as necessary to clear out terrorists and corruption. In early April, Haftar released an audio message on the LNA’s Facebook page declaring the purpose of the operation was to “shake the lands under the feet of the unjust bunch”.
Haftar's actions could have a long-lasting Geopolitical impact
While the US withdraws special operations troops from Tripoli and western Europe openly squabbles over the situation, Russia seems poised to quietly exploit it. AFRICOM Commander- Gen. Waldhauser, appealed to Congress about the matter last month, warning the armed services committee on March 5th that:
Behind the scenes there's no doubt about the fact they've (the Russians) supported the (LNA) with all kinds of equipment, people, training and the like and they've supported Haftar, who has moved now from the east to the west and essentially has taken a lot of real estate to get into a good position for leverage for diplomatic talks,
With this new-found relationship comes a possible strategic partner for Moscow- directly on NATO’s southern perimeter. There are even reports the Kremlin is seeking to set up long-term bases in west Libya. The Marine Corps General went on to warn:
It gives them influence and it gives him influence in a key location in the southern Mediterranean on the southern part of the NATO if you will, and it allows them then to reinvigorate some old Gaddafi-era contracts in the oilfield weapon sales and the like. So, there's a strategic interest for them to be behind both sides, but primarily really Haftar.
Haftar's opposition in Tripoli claims he is merely a power-hungry strongman. They point out that the timing of his offensive coincides with Ramadan and upcoming UN peace talks, at which he would now clearly have leverage. His detractors warn that the complicity of the world could be just inviting another dictatorship.
Whatever happens, it appears that outside powers don’t have the stomach to intervene this time around. The future of Libya seems destined to be decided between Libyans. Perhaps this is precisely the moment the Field Marshall has been plotting all along.
There could be a lot of opportunity for progress in the chaos. Though a failed state today, the west should not overlook Libya's strategic potential again. If Haftar is able to bring stability (and not as a tyrant), that could mean a better life for 7 million Libyans, lower oil prices, fewer migrants crossing the Mediterranean illegally, and one less terrorist haven in the world.
That is all leverage he may soon be able to bring to the table.
Those in power might already see this. If the Haftar-Trump phone call was any indication, the US and a new Libya could have what the Whitehouse called a “Shared Vision” for the future.