How to Contain Libya’s New Warlord

Libya’s new unity government can survive only by finding a way to stand up to General Khalifa Haftar and his army.

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Libya is already a mess, but things may be about to take a serious turn for the worse. Only a few months have passed since the United Nations helped Libyans to cobble together a unity government that was supposed to end the country’s two-year civil war. Yet now that faint hope of stability is threatening to vanish — and the result could be an even broader conflict, one that might even ultimately lead to partition.

The reason is simple. In their rush to create a new government that might restore a modicum of stability, Libya’s ostensible friends in the international community overlooked one big obstacle: General Khalifa Haftar and his motley band of Qaddafi-era soldiers and militias known as the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Haftar is an odd and much misunderstood piece in the wider Libyan puzzle. Behind him stands a collection of various political and community leaders who have much to gain by aligning themselves with him — even if only temporarily. The general also enjoys quite a bit of genuine popular support, mainly in the eastern province of Cyrenaica but to some extent nationwide.

Haftar has consistently rejected the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the militia army loyal to it. His chief of staff recently upped the ante by threatening to “liberate” (read: invade) Tripoli from a nearby town. At the same time, Haftar’s forces — under the guise of combating Islamic State, which has been expanding its presence in Libya — have deployed themselves around Cyrenaica’s oil fields, a move widely interpreted as a prelude to seizing control of them. Meanwhile, his political allies have been trying to sell the oil already under their control independently on the world market, and have even printed their own currency with the help of the Russians. (Meanwhile, the Central Bank in Tripoli, which is loyal to the unity government, uses a company based in Great Britain to print Libyan dinars.)

Haftar and his allies are, in short, exacerbating the country’s existing political divide. A spate of recent kidnappings of the general’s critics in territory under his control in Benghazi and Tobruk, as well as the prominence of Qaddafi-era personalities and secret police operatives in his administration, offer clues about the type of state he aims to form.

One can understand Haftar’s popularity only by considering the circumstances that have allowed him to reinvent himself. In the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, various Islamist groups who had been heavily persecuted by Qaddafi exploited the power vacuum to take revenge on their enemies. Benghazi and large swathes of Cyrenaica came under a sustained assassination campaign as former members of the security and judicial services, and many others, fell victim to horrible attacks. Shootings in mosques, sniper attacks, and car bombs paralyzed the entire region. The transitional authorities did little more than to offer fatuous advice on improving security (such as telling people in Benghazi to look under their cars with a stick every morning). Extremist groups with links to the Al-Qaeda-allied Jabhat al-Nusra, and later the Islamic State, exploited the insecurity to gain a foothold.

Enter Haftar, who in 2014 launched a military campaign against the Islamists he called “Operation Dignity.” His forces allowed officers and soldiers of the old army to strike back against their foes. The offensive was hampered by the lack of a tangible enemy or clear objectives, ultimately prompting a once-fractious collection of Islamist, extremist, and vehemently anti-Qaddafi militias to bury their differences and unite against the new threat.

Haftar is a controversial figure. He stands accused of committing war crimes during his command of Qaddafi’s war on Chad in the 1980s; in the years that followed he forged an opaque relationship with the Washington security establishment. Despite all this, though, his Operation Dignity was embraced by large segments of the Libyan population, who viewed him as the only person capable of defying the forces of chaos. It’s an old political truth that decisiveness in a period of anarchy is a sure path to popular support.

Two years later, the general’s popularity remains strong. Having seized control of Benghazi and other areas, he has shown that he can return a semblance of stability and peace, an immensely appealing achievement to a population that has suffered five years of near-continuous warfare. Haftar, indeed, is the only person in Libya’s new political elite who can boast such an accomplishment — regardless of how tenuous his victory may be, or how much outside support it took to achieve. The heavy military support provided to the general by Egypt and the Gulf, as well as the frontline presence of French Special Forces assisting his troops, are perhaps Libya’s worst kept secret. He can also claim the loyalty of many officers of the old army, though a significant number of veterans reject him and his methods.

But Haftar may not be quite the force for stability that he claims. Until very recently his camp was showing signs of fragmentation, both politically and militarily; there are many reasons to suppose that his supporters are much less cohesive than they may at first seem.

If the unity government wants to show that it can do a better job, it should start by creating a truly unified army. The GNA’s recent appointment of Mahdi al-Barghathi, one of Haftar’s previous commanders, to the post of defense minister, sets a good example of what needs to be done. The troops of the Qaddafi-era army, who were regarded with suspicion by the dictator and systematically neglected in favor of elite units commanded by his sons, remain the best foundation for a modern and genuinely national army. Rather than attempting to build on them, though, the unity government has relied on a ragtag assortment of existing militias. The same strategy was pursued by the GNA’s predecessors, and it is destined to fail for the same reasons that these earlier attempts did: these militias are loyal only to themselves, not to any civilian administration, and they are correspondingly useless as a fighting force.

The unity government should be doing everything it can to assure the populace that it is the surest path to stability and prosperity. Instead, unable to extend its influence beyond relatively small fiefdoms in Tripoli and Misrata, the GNA has been focusing on cultivating its international image. Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, in power for two months, has spent the majority of his time abroad; he has yet to even visit Cyrenaica. GNA officials tout their presumed success in concluding lucrative deals with outside investors, but their hype makes for a sharp contrast with the lack of progress toward establishing an effective administration or genuine security. The GNA’s inability to distinguish itself from previous transitional administrations is leading an already suspicious population to trust in the devil they know (Haftar) rather than risk supporting yet another weak government that is heavy on rhetoric and light on substance.

Even so, Haftar’s success shows that political reinvention is possible in today’s Libya. Unity government officials should visit the East and engage with the people there to show that they have a genuinely national outlook. They should ensure that the funding they’ve promised to Cyrenaica’s local governments actually reaches its intended recipients — something that is currently by no means a given. GNA officials should also work harder to provide communities with services and supplies, including medicine and even generators (to cope with the endemic shortage of electricity), in order to prove that they’re better capable of providing for the beleaguered population than Haftar.

Haftar is a man whose popularity is a direct product of Libya’s post-revolutionary vacuum of leadership. Confronting him — be it rhetorically, militarily, or with the much repeated threat of sanctions — will only reinforce his position while casting the GNA as just another faction in the country’s continuing power struggles rather than as a genuine national government. The unity government should instead focus on giving the population the security and public services it so desperately desires. If it can do this, the Haftar problem will solve itself.

Photo credit: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images

Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, specializing in politics, governance, and development in the Arab world. He has worked extensively on Libya's transition since 2012 with Libyan and international organizations. Twitter: @Tmegrisi