The ‘mad dog of the Middle East’, as Ronald Reagan once called Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is on the brink of achieving his life’s ambition: becoming the dictator of Libya. He’s a rather old mad dog by now (75), but after a two-month siege his troops are starting to break through the defences of the country’s capital, Tripoli.
As a young officer, Haftar took part in the coup that overthrew the Libyan king and brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, and he stayed loyal to the new dictator for two decades. But he was captured during Libya’s lost war with Chad in 1987, and bought his freedom by switching sides and going to work for the US Central Intelligence Agency.
When Haftar’s efforts to overthrow Gaddafi on behalf of the CIA failed, it resettled him in the United States in 1990. He spent the next twenty years quietly in Virginia, acquiring American citizenship along the way – but then came the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010-11, and suddenly he was back in play.
He had little part in overthrowing Gaddafi, which was mainly achieved by NATO bombers. But the multifarious Libyan militias, which were mainly colourful extras playing supporting roles during the bombing campaign, took centre stage when Gaddafi was finally killed, because NATO couldn’t or wouldn’t take responsibility for putting Libya back together after the war.
Haftar’s opportunity came in eastern Libya (Cyrenaica), where Islamist militias had seized control of the regional capital, Benghazi, and murdered the US ambassador in 2012. He created a militia, the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), that set about the lengthy task of reconquering Cyrenaica. The centre of Benghazi was destroyed by artillery fire in the process, but by 2017 the job was done.
Who paid for all this? Haftar’s financial arrangements are murky, to say the least, but his backers would certainly include France, which has a large investment in Libyan oil. Also Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, all of which like dictators and hate Islamist radicals. And, since early 2017, the United States as well.
Haftar’s campaign in the east completely ignored the new, ‘internationally recognised’ government that the United Nations cobbled together in late 2015. It’s not elected, it controls nothing outside of the city of Tripoli, and in fact it doesn’t control much of the city either. It’s the local militias, most of them Islamist, who actually run things.
That’s Haftar’s main excuse for trying to capture Tripoli. He just wants to run the country, but his Saudi, Egyptian, Russian and American backers (and don’t forget the United Arab Emirates) are all paranoid about Islamists under the bed, so he highlights that theme to keep them happy.
The Islamist militias of Tripoli, Misrata and the rest of western Libya are not all religious fanatics and secret members of al-Qaeda. They’re mostly just local boys with guns who are enjoying the ride, and need some sort of ideological justification for behaving badly. But if the stupid foreigners think they are a real menace, Haftar will take their money.
He spent last year conquering the desert south of the country, where most of the oil is, and two months ago he moved his forces back north and attacked Tripoli. The local militias rallied to the defence of the ‘internationally recognised’ government (and of their own local protection rackets), and for a while it looked like a stalemate.
In mid-April Donald Trump telephoned Haftar to thank him for his efforts to “combat terrorism and secure Libya’s oil.” More useful were the Russian-made cargo planes flying in to Haftar’s Libyan bases from Egypt, Jordan and Israel bearing – well, who knows? Maybe dates, olives and halva. Or maybe something more useful.
And now, after almost two months of deadlock, the front has started to move. Haftar’s LNA is reported to be in the eastern and southern suburbs of Tripoli and near the international airport. One LNA spearhead is allegedly in Salah al-Deen, only a few kilometres from the city centre.
Haftar’s offensive may yet fizzle out. He calls himself a field marshal, but the highest rank he ever held while actually in combat command of troops was colonel, and he didn’t do very well with that. On the other hand, the people he’s fighting aren’t exactly military geniuses either, so he could win. What would that mean?
It would mean a new Libyan dictatorship, of course, but it would also mean comparative peace in Libya and maybe an opportunity to rebuild the reasonably competent welfare state that has been destroyed in the past decade. And since Haftar is already 75, he’s not going to match Gaddafi’s 42 years in power.
When all the options are bad, you must choose the least bad, and maybe Haftar is it. And think how many people would rejoice in his victory: President Donald Trump, President Vladimir Putin, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, President (and ex-General) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, President Emmanuel Macron….
If all those wise men like it, who are we to say otherwise?
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’