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At It Again: Haftar Redux in Libya

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Rebels outside the town of Gharyan-where fighting between the LNA and pro-GNA forces is ongoing at the time of this posting-photographed on 26 July 2011. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Jaffna- In Libya, the 75-year-old General Khalifa Haftar who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA) is back in the news cycle this week in a big way. Reportedly backed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in terms of war materiel, his forces are advancing close to Tripoli in what the nominally UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by  Head of the Presidential Council Fayez al-Sarraj is characterising as a coup attempt.

I thought it a good time to dredge up my deeply researched bio of Haftar I published with the Jamestown Foundation almost exactly eight years ago after he had initially returned to Benghazi from many years of exile in Virginia.

The following article was the subject of a Reuters story on 1 April 2011: Rebel army chief is veteran Gaddafi foe: think-tank and was mentioned in The Telegraph:Libya: rebels send trained forces to the front, telling youth to stay back

Taking Charge of Libya’s Rebels: An In-Depth Portrait of Colonel Khalifa Haftar

By Derek Henry Flood

Background

On March 14, 2011, Khalifa Haftar, a dissidentLibyan Army colonel and long time foe of Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, reappeared in Benghazi, the opposition’s supposedly temporary de facto administrative center, to lead Libya’ s chaotic rebellion (al-Jazeera, March 14). For many years Haftar has been the commander-in-exile of the Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA is the armed wing of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), a significant Libyan exile entity operating mostly outside of Libya’s borders for several decades. A rebel spokesman in Benghazi told a pan-Arab daily that Colonel Haftar’s arrival from the West on the ground in Libya’s Cyrenaica region was a significant boost to a movement that desperately needed a jolt of energy. “Col. Haftar has in fact returned and is now in eastern Libya. His return has boosted the morale of the young revolutionaries. Haftar has returned and we believe that this officers and soldiers have returned with him. All of them were training during the past six years. They rom Libya’s 1969 coup, he may stand asthe best liaison for the United States and allied NATO forces in dealing with Libya’s unruly rebels.

Though it is not clear at the time of this writing (back in 2011) how much actual control Haftar has over rebel soldiers and volunteers on the frontline, after his appointment as “Commander in Chief” of opposition forces callingthemselves the “Army of Free Libya,” he stated that he has entered the fight to avenge the injustices committed against the Libyan people by Qaddafi. Haftar stated thathe does not view the present fight against Tripoli as an opportunistic moment to settle a nearly quarter century old grudge against Qaddafi (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 19). Before Haftar’s return to Benghazi, the Interim National Transitional Council announced that former General Omar al-Hariri, who tried to overthrow al-Qaddafi in 1975, would be the head of military affairs for the rebel forces. General al-Hariri was imprisoned until 1990. He was then put under closely monitored house arrest, in place until the February 17 revolution commenced. Al-Hariri is listed on the Interim National Transitional Council’s website as being responsible for the opposition’s “military affairs.” The Council has not issued a similar press release in regard to Haftar’s status, and many frontline rebels are not clear on which of the two men is currently in charge. Colonel Haftar hails from the Farjani tribe (alternately known as Farjan) in the central coastal city of Sirte. He had been committed to Colonel al-Qaddafi when he seized power in the One September Revolution of 1969 which overthrew King Idris and the royal Sanussi order. Haftar was subsequently rewarded by being made a member of Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). [1]

Interpersonal Struggles

Haftar was the overall leading commander of Libyan troops in the 1980-1987 Libyan-Chadian conflict until he was captured by then Chadian President Hissène Habré’s forces. Upon his capture by the Habré regime, he betrayed Qaddafi and then set his sights on deposing his former comrades in the Free Unionist Officers movement ruling in Tripoli. Haftar set up the LNA on June 21, 1988 [2] with strong backing from the Central Intelligence Agency and according to some sources also received Saudi funding and Israeli training. The Libyan Army defectors comprising the LNA, sometimes referred to as the “Haftar Force,” were termed “Contras” in the Cold War parlance of the era denoting their outlook as counter-revolutionaries struggling against al-Qaddafi’s eternal revolutionary state. Haftar dismissed the Contra label as “meaningless,” stating that the LNA is a “Libyanorganization with Libyan interests and Libyan goals”(al-Hayat, December 19, 1991). He said that while the LNA was temporarily basing itself in the United States, with 400 members dispersed across 25 states, he stressed that most of his outfit’s original support was indeed Libyan and Arab (al-Hayat, December 18, 1991).

While Haftar and between 600-700 fellow defectings oldiers were bolstered and equipped by U.S. intelligence after the formation of LNA in late 1988, history was not on Haftar’s side until 2011. General Idriss Déby, former commander-in-chief of the Chadian Armed Forces for several years during the war with the legitimate LibyanArmy led by Haftar and Libyan-backed Chadian rebels in Chad’s troubled northern BET Region, turned on the Habré government. Déby was backed by Tripoli in this scenario which ultimately resulted in the American plans for Khalifa Haftar to infiltrate Libya to be shelved.

Colonel Haftar was no longer welcome in Chad following the December 1990 military coup by Idriss Déby that deposed President Habré. Relations between Habré and Déby soured irrevocably with Habré accusing Déby of conspiring against him. Déby ousted his former mentor with Sudanese backing (IRIN, April 19, 2006). Following Habré’s overthrow, a brief warming of relations between N’Djamena and Tripoli occurred as Déby pragmatically flirted with the Libyan regime in order to consolidate his rule over Chad’s vast territory. Haftar’s rebels were ejected from Chad in the process, dispersing them throughout Africa. Those that chose not to return to Libya under an amnesty offered by Qaddafi were eventually resettled in the United Stateswhen their security in Africa was in doubt. [3]

Many questions have arisen among Western analysts in regard to the precise ideological nature and religious leanings of Libya’s rebel Shabaab movement since the outbreak of internecine hostilities there on February 17, 2011. The movement, now led at least partly by Colonel Haftar, is an ad hoc revolutionary one that is not monolithic in terms of either long term strategy or ideology. Libyan opposition movements like the NFSL/LNA have existed for decades before the current war and have been led by men like Khalifa Haftar weaned on the Arab nationalism of the mid-twentieth century. Libya’s exiled opposition groups tended to mixmodernist secularism with traditional Arab and Bedouin Islamism partly in reaction to al-Qaddafi’s assault on Libyan Muslim identity. [4] The challenge before Colonel Haftar is whether he can graft his experience and know-how from wars and ideologies past onto a young movement already in disarray.

Khalifa Haftar has been on the run from the al-Qaddafi regime since his capture in Chad in March 1987 following Libya’s disastrous defeat at the battle of Ouadi Doum in northern Chad’s Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) Region. Qaddafi, whom Haftar had considered a closeconfidant, was said to deny Haftar’s very existence while he languished in a Chadian POW camp for seven months. In reaction, an infuriated Haftar joined the LNSF at Habré’s behest and declared war against the Libyan state. [5] Hissène Habré, a staunch American ally in Africa in the context of the Cold War who Human Rights Watch now terms an “African Pinochet,” released Haftar from detention after the two pragmatically put aside their differences. The Reagan administration planned to utilize Khalifa Haftar to oust al-Qaddafi during his time in Chad. Haftar spent the next three years (1988-1991) in encampments surrounding N’Djamena training his soldiers for an eventual operation to overthrow al- Qaddafi. This plan was not to be as the geopolitical realities shifted in the Sahel/Sahara region before Haftar could be deployed into Libya proper. The entire covert project would be abruptly aborted.

Idriss Déby Moves In, Khalifa Haftar Moves On

As Idriss Déby’s Sudan-backed rebel movement gainedmomentum, Haftar knew his position in Chad would be jeopardized when Hissène Habré would inevitably fall. He devised a plan to mount an assault on French troops stationed outside the capital deployed as part of Opération Épervier. Épervier was a force dispatched by French President François Mitterrand to contain Libyan aggression in Chad. Haftar felt that France favoured Idriss Déby at the expense of the LNA and that he was threatened by Déby’s rebel advance toward the capital. Though France had been a long time supporter of Habré, he ultimately fell victim to the cooling of Franco-Chadian relations. The French remained, at least officially, neutral as Habré was quickly deposed. Colonel al-Qaddafi, sensing an opportunity with the changing of the guard in N’Djamena, relayed to Déby that he wanted the renegade Haftar repatriated to Tripoli, an act that might have meant certain death for Haftar.

Though General Déby did not comply with the Libyan request for the extradition of the dissident soldiers, Déby informed the United States that the Libyan rebels, many of whom he had personally fought, were no longer welcome in N’Djamena either and allowed them to be quietly shuttled out of the country. Déby’s unsympathetic position toward Haftar may be why Chad has yet to make any noise about aiding the rebels in the current war, as remaining bitterness between the two men is certainly not out of the question.

Déby tried to keep Habré at bay in Cameroon where he had fled after the coup d’état (AP, December 2, 1990). Chad’s new leader accurately sensed his people’s fatigue after years of unending conflict. He astutely opted out of fomenting further tension with al-Qaddafi at the time publicizing the American-supported LNA being evacuated from N’Djamena (Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1990) Déby was also much less interested in being an American proxy in Africa than his predecessor. The ascent of Idriss Déby greatly altered the trajectory of Haftar’s life. [6]

Flight

In a 1997 memoir by the late Smith Hempstone, the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya during the administration of George H.W. Bush, Hempstone describes what was unofficially referred to as “Operation Magic Carpet”, a clandestine effort to spirit Haftar’s followers out of Mobuto Sese Seko’s Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) where they were potentially vulnerable to al-Qaddafi’s far reaching hit teams and possible entente between al-Qaddafi and Mobuto at the time. [7]

Haftar later fled N’Djamena following the Déby takeover and was flown on an American Hercules to Nigeria with much of the LNA. Circumstances in Nigeria did not permit them to stay in the country longer than 24 hours. American facilitators forwarded them to Zaire. Between 300-400 of Haftar’s roving, CIA-connected rebels had to flee Zaire after the U.S. Congress quashed a plan to funnel $5,000,000 to Mobutu’s regime to let the Libyans exist in his kleptocracy where they could regroup and plot against al-Qaddafi for another day. When the American plan to essentially pay off Mobutu was scrapped, Colonel a-Qaddafi funneled an undisclosed amount of money to Mobutu. For his part, al-Qaddafi demanded the return of the Zaire-based LNA fighters, particularly the leadership. Colonel Haftar called on his American connections to be brought directly to the U.S. from Zaire. The U.S. quickly obliged Haftar but the arrangement still left several hundred rebels behind in limbo. Haftar’s Libyan fighters then landed in President Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya where American officials hoped the Libyans would be welcomed, after a generous offer of cash to arap Moi’s debt burdened regime. [8] Though initially agreeing to receive funding from the U.S. ina quid pro quo for housing the Libyans, a month onNairobi had a change of heart after President arap Moi

All Was Not Quiet In the Interim

Haftar’s time in sub-Saharan African limbo at the outset of the 1990s was not his last gasp in wantingto overthrow al-Qaddafi. After the LNA and NFSL apparently drifted apart for several years, the Libyan exiles interest converged once again when, in the spring of 1996, Haftar reportedly instigated an insurrection in Cyrenaica’s historically defiant al-Jebel al-Akhdar region near the eastern city of Derna that raged at Haftar’s direction but was swiftly crushed (Reuters, March 26, 1996). [9] Reports at the time suggested that some of rebels in the al-Jebel al-Akhdar incident werethose fostered in Chad by the CIA prior to the 1990coup. [10] Nearly a decade after his defection, Haftar was linked to a failed coup attempt against al-Qaddafi (al-Majid [Amman], August 5, 1996) [11] Somewhat incongruously, a report citing unnamed Arab sources in Tripoli surfaced four years after the 1996 incidents that Haftar was considering returning to his nativeland. Haftar, through a spokesman, flatly refuted the speculation, suggesting it may have been disinformation spread by the Libyan intelligence services and noted: “We also have heard the reports of his intention toreturn. I spoke to him a short time ago and I can assureyou that Col. Haftar is in the United States and is notthinking about returning” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 16, 2000).

Conclusion

In a sense, Colonel Khalifa Haftar’s personal odyssey strings together a policy continuum of overt hostility between Washington and Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi. At the time of the United States’ most direct confrontation withColonel al-Qaddafi on April 15, 1986 with airstrikes onmilitary installations in Benghazi and Tripoli, Colonel Haftar was in good standing as one of the founding members of the RCC and was loyally commanding al-Qaddafi’s forces in the Libyan quagmire in Chad.Twenty-five years on, the American military alongside its NATO partners, is intervening in the 2011 Libyan civil war where Haftar has suddenly reemerged to build force structure amongst Libya’s chaotic rebels. It must be noted that in stark difference to the largely civil society led revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the war in Libya, as the odyssey of Khalifa Haftar’s life demonstrates, is as much, if not more tied to the African world as the Arab one. The Kalashnikov-powered revolution now being commanded on the front by Haftar has a very deep African dimension to it, owing to Libya’s modern military history and inescapable political geography. While Tunisia and Egyptian foreign policies correspond largely to the greater Mediterranean-Levant regions, Colonel al-Qaddafi’s efforts since 1969 have dragged Libya southward into sub-Saharan Africa.

While lawmakers and policy analysts in the West are repeatedly stating that they do not know just who Libya rebels are and to what degree they may be influenced by the transnational jihadism espoused by al-Qaeda, atthe helm of this movement is Colonel Khalifa Haftar, anold school secular Nasserist who has lived in the United States for twenty years. In a 1991 interview conducted in an LNA camp in rural Virginia, Haftar stated that he mostly closely identified himself with Omar al-Mukhtar, the legendary anti-colonial resistance leader hanged by Italian administrators in Libya in 1931. As al-Mukhtar challenged Benito Mussolini, an external tyrant, Haftar sees himself along a similar historical path in his lifelong battle with Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, the quintessential tyrant. Haftar, the former CIA confidant in Africa and now a veteran, hardline anti-Qaddafi activist, may prove to be the most apt conduit for the U.S./NATO and their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners.

Notes:

1. Colin Legum, Africa Research Ltd., AfricaContemporary Record: Annual Survey and Documents, Volume 26, (Teaneck, New Jersey: Holmes & Meier, 2002), p. B-543.

2. John Ruedy, Islamism and Secularism in NorthAfrica, (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996), p.195.

3. Ronald Bruce St John, Historical Dictionary of Libya,(Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2006), p.149.

4. Ruedy, op. cit.

5. J. Millard Burr, Robert O. Collins, Darfur: The LongRoad to Disaster, (Princeton, New Jersey: Markus Wiener Publishers 2008) pp. 274; J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, Africa’s Thirty Years’ War: Libya, Chad and the Sudan 1963-1993, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), p.300.

6. Smith Hempstone, Rogue Ambassador: An African Memoir, (Sewanee, Tennessee: University of the South Press, 1997), pp.136-139.

7. Michael Clough, Free at Last?: U.S. Policy Toward Africa and the End of the Cold War, (New York: New York University Press, 1992), p.100.

8. Lucy Dean, The Middle East and North Africa 2004, Volume 50, (London: Europa Publications, 2003), p.788.

9. Clyde R. Mark, CRS Issue Brief for Congress-Libya, (Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 1996).

10. Clyde R. Mark, CRS Issue Brief for Congress-Libya, (Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2002), p.9.

11. Legum, op. cit.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 7th, 2019 at 6:08 am