Pete Souza

The Blind Eye to Hifter

US and Western allies have made defeating ISIS/ISIL their top international priority. Nowhere is that objective more achievable than in Libya, where Libyans have taken the lead in fighting, dislodging and defeating the scourge of the Islamic State.

Yet, despite the intervention of special forces troops and calls for more engagement by European nations, the fight there is being largely hobbled by an unwillingness to stand up to internal Libyan trouble-makers who are using the ISIL fight as an opportunity to advance domestic political and military agendas. There is a deep, two-faced obstructionism happening in Libya today in which purported allies and friends of the West are saying the right things but actually acting quite differently.

It’s not the first time Western leaders have been led down a dark alley by choosing to believe words rather than to see actions. What happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and Egypt, will happen in the Libyan fight to defeat ISIL.

And while there are plenty of examples, former Qaddafi General and current CIA man, Khalifa Hifter is the best and most visible example. His history is long and sordid having supported the revolution that bought strongman Qaddafi to power, trained in the Soviet Union, fought in Chad, switched sides (twice) and established residence in Virginia where he apparently became a US Citizen.

Now Hifter is back in Libya, leading militia groups and telling those in the West that he’s committed to the fight against ISIL. And the West is listening, throwing in support to government factions that support Hifter.

But as a report by the Carnegie Foundation illuminated, Hifter isn’t just fighting ISIL. “…Hifter initially drew no distinction between Islamist groups that maintained relations with Libya’s Western-backed government…and extremist anti-state jihadis…”

Despite his rhetoric, in practice, Hifter’s military incursions have damaged those fighting the Islamic State as much as they have damaged the Islamic State itself.

Where Islamist groups with pro-government and Western sympathies have waged pitched battles against ISIL, Hifter’s forces have blocked roads and cut off reinforcements from sustaining military gains. Even though he may wish ISIL defeated, Hifter clearly does not wish any faction but his own to grow stronger as a result. Libya may be better, in his view, as a divided, chaotic mess in which he can battle two weak enemies rather than a nation united under a banner that is not his.

Hifter is not the first despot-in-waiting or the only such figure in Libya. But he is the only one at present to be indirectly sanctioned by Western leaders. And, as such, he represents a betrayal and abandonment of the very principles that the US, their allies and many brave Libyans embraced in the revolution the toppled Qaddafi, Libya’s most recent military strongman.

What’s especially troubling about the current Libyan situation as it relates to ISIL is that a brave fight of opposition is being waged in which Libyan young men and women are dying every day. Moreover, Libyans recognize that this fight is theirs and any successful, long-term victory over the Islamic State in Libya will require the engagement of all Libyans, even those with Islamist ideals.

Against that backdrop, the West and other international leaders are turning an injurious blind-eye to those such as Hifter who see only personal enemies, ISIL or otherwise. And without international, political, moral and humanitarian support for those who are truly and primarily fighting ISIL, the fight will take much longer, cost more in both blood and treasure and remain a growing threat to the region as well as to continental Europe.

The West does not need to – and probably should not – send military forces into the fray in Libya. But there are things they can and should do to make their support clear as well as ease human suffering being inflicted as a result of the multi-lateral conflict. These include: Immediately dispatching an American or NATO medical ship to the port of Mesurata to provide medical assistance to the victims of the war against ISIL; the US and/or the UN should by-pass military maneuvering and the use of humanitarian aid as a military tool and airlift aid to the ISIL affected battle areas; the US, UN or NATO should offer to clear land mines strewn around communities under the control of ISIL. The mines deter military action and are an ongoing threat to civilians. And finally, condemn or sanction political institutions that support Hifter and other actors who disrupt the prosecution of the fight to end the Islamic State in Libya.

Helping innocent victims and calling out bad actors in Libya won’t win the war against ISIL but it will help those doing the actual fighting. Even more, humanitarian support and an open, honest view of what’s really happening in Libya should not need to be requested – it should be the minimum that anyone fighting for freedom and democracy can expect from those who claim to support such things.