Khalifa Haftar: Getting a Libyan Strongman on the Cheap
It has been four years since the global intervention that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. Today, the Libyan state is a mess. Political turmoil quickly turned into outright civil war in 2014 after Islamist parties refused to accept election results.
Rival warring militias have ripped the country apart allowing even the Islamic State to gain a foothold in North Africa. There are two main rival governments contesting control. The one in the east is headed by the armed forces under General Haftar and those in the west belong to the Islamist militia umbrella organization, Libyan Dawn.
Khalifa Haftar is an old military man who helped Gaddafi overthrow Libya’s king in 1969. He eventually became one of Gaddafi’s top commanders until he fell from grace when he disastrously mismanaged a battle in one of Libya’s armed conflicts with Chad. Not only did he lose but also managed to get himself captured. After Gaddafi disowned him he joined a plot to oust Gaddafi but when that proved undoable he was rescued by the Americans and spent two decades living in the US until he was recalled to join in the revolution that overthrew his former boss.
As a result of his military experience he was given command of the army. In 2014 he dissolved the Islamist-dominated General National Congress which in essence launched a civil war as a precaution against an Islamist dominated Libya and as revenge for the killing of his commander-in-chief, Abdaul Fatah Younis, who was assassinated by Islamist forces. Haftar then began Operation Dignity which directly confronted the Islamist militias and their Islamist dominated parliament.
This operation is ongoing and he has painted himself as a Libyan version of al-Sisi seeking to not only eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya but also all Islamist groups. The United States should embrace the General and arm him in order to bring about the unity of Libya and end the anarchic madness that has engulfed that country since Gaddafi’s death. Today, Libya is without a doubt worse off than it ever was under Gaddafi. The reality is that while Gaddafi was a thug, Libya was more or less stable under his control.
Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced with law and order breaking down in many towns. The electrical grid is highly unreliable. Income from oil has plummeted thereby sending many families who relied heavily on government subsidies into poverty. Democracy in Libya as the West’s knows it has become untenable, as tribal and religious allegiances have again surfaced.
A failed state the size of Libya cannot be permitted to stand because it is a national security issue for the region. The sooner Libya is under the control of the central government the sooner the chaos unleashed in North Africa can be brought under control. Khalifa Heftar, unlike Gaddafi, is personally not crazy nor unpredictable and has learned from Gaddafi’s mistakes. Obviously he does not support democracy and is a strongman in training but perhaps that is what some post-Arab Spring countries need.
Many in Libya are already lamenting the days of Muammar Gaddafi whose odd and eccentric rule was nevertheless relatively stable. The Obama administration has an opportunity here to pick up an ally on the cheap. For the same price of the Libyan intervention of approximately $1 billion the United States can gain the allegiance of Haftar as a stabilizing force in North Africa.
Unfortunately the Obama administration’s thinking regarding international relations makes this impossible. The Obama administration’s distaste for autocratic Middle Eastern leaders regardless of their pro or anti-American stance is well-known. It seems that nobody has sent a memo to Washington that the once praised Arab Spring has turned into a terrifying episode for many.
Most Middle Eastern countries especially Libya were not ready for democratic revolutions and without strongman dictators will either end up like Iran with a theocratic government or will be laid waste by rival militias in civil wars that may end up with the breakup of sovereign states into mini sectarian states. Khalifa Haftar offers the West an opportunity to fix Libya since the West broke Libya when it overthrew Gaddafi.