Our Man in Benghazi
The United States is supporting UN-mediated dialogue in Libya in the hopes of resolving the festering disputes among the country’s warring parties. That’s been America’s policy ever since the overthrow of the dictatorial regime of Muammar Gaddafi – engineered with US support in 2011 which led to a brief period of stability and freedom only to be followed by strife and fragmentation. Getting the parties to agree to a timetable for elections and ensuring a fair and impartial voting process is critical to forging a lasting peace.
But it could all come to naught. Since taking office, the Trump White House has refused to distance itself publicly from Khalifa Haftar, a rogue warlord, former CIA asset, and accused war criminal who is seeking to impose himself by force as the country’ next supreme ruler.
Trump’s State Department is well aware of the problems its one-time friend and ally are posing to the still-fragile peace process. Haftar has openly attacked the UN peace plan and ordered his cronies to attack and destroy polling stations in towns he controlled. He also arranged for “supporters” to sign petitions calling on Haftar to bypass elections and to immediately seize power.
In late September of last year, Haftar was summoned to Rome to meet with the deputy CIA director. The message was clear: Stop attacking polling stations, stop the signature collecting charade, and show support for the elections. The attacks came to a complete halt, signature collection stations were disbanded, and Haftar went on TV and reluctantly endorsed the upcoming elections.
But the Trump administration refuses to sever its ties with Haftar. Instead, it’s allowing its surrogates, Israel, Egypt, and the UAE to fill the void left by the withdrawal of American covert support. Press reports, citing unnamed intelligence sources, have documented Israel’s role in boosting Haftar’s militia forces, primarily with arms sales. Whereas Mr. Trump has wasted no opportunity to reverse any Obama policy he’s inherited, in Libya he’s decided to stay the course.
Another important event occurred after the Rome meeting. The Department of Justice received a detailed complaint against Haftar and his sons. Haftar has been implicated in a multitude of war crimes including publicly calling on his militia to shoot captured prisoners, organizing public executions, and publicly ordering his subordinates to “suffocate” the residents of a neighboring town that refused to submit to his rule. Replete with legal analysis and evidence, the complaint called upon the US government to open a formal investigation of Haftar for “war crimes and other violations of US law.”
Haftar’s response? He has just hired two high-profile Washington lobbying firms – Keystone Strategic Advisers and Grassroots Political Consulting – to attempt to push back against a formal indictment and to convince the Congress, and eventually Trump, to maintain close ties.
In its press release announcing support, Grassroots Consulting heaped praise on Libya’s most notorious warlord and his entire family, saying they had “sacrificed a great deal” in order to “achieve long-term stability” in Libya. The combined support of the two lobbying firms will cost more than half a million dollars over the next six months – a princely sum far beyond Haftar’s own the resources.
Haftar’s real aim is to establish a family autocracy in Libya. Just like Kim Jung-Un, he is consumed with dreams of grandeur and wealth. He reads American silence in the face of his war crimes as a nod of approval. In his twisted mind he believes he can trade on his past relationship with the CIA and the sympathies of the Trump administration for military strongmen to buy his way into the presidency.
Trump, in public statements, has sent mixed signals. Occasionally, he would extol the virtues of strongman leaders like Haftar as forces for stability and order. But on other occasions, Trump would promise that the US would be on the side of peace, justice, and human rights.
Haftar‘s anti-democratic track record is crystal clear. He teamed up with Gaddafi in 1969 to overthrow Libya’s democratic government. Then Haftar switched sides and tried, with US support, to overthrow Gaddafi in a military coup, which led to his exile in the United States. In 2014 he led yet another coup and ordered the arrest of all elected officials in Libya. Amazingly, Haftar recently kidnapped a member of the US-recognized and supported ministry of the Interior who threatened to expose his complicity in war crimes, murder, and assassinations.
Even the military rationale for supporting Haftar is weakening. Despite a bloody three-year campaign and despite support from several foreign governments, Haftar only controls a few Libyan cities and towns. Without such direct foreign assistance and without the support of religious extremist groups, Haftar’s nominal control will quickly diminish.
The Trump administration is running a real legal risk by not ostracizing its one-time “asset.” Haftar is a US citizen, which means he could be prosecuted in American courts. The Department of Justice has already received at least one formal complaint against Haftar. If the DOJ indeed convenes a grand jury, Haftar could well be indicted, in which case American officials run the risk of being accused of aiding and abetting a war criminal.
For all of these reasons, now is not the time for Western allies to play footsie with Haftar to keep his own putschist ambitions alive. Haftar’s rivals are pulling together and laying the foundation for a stable parliamentary government. The International community needs to create incentives for all warring parties to come together, lay down their arms, and agree to negotiate a common future based on democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. Haftar, at best, is a peace process holdout; at worst, he is a spoiler and a war criminal.
Trump needs to make clear that America is making a clean break with the past – including past support for brutal unaccountable warlords like Haftar.