Libya’s New Generals (I): Conflicting Loyalties
By: Basheer al-Baker
Published Sunday, August 28, 2011
The motives and goals of Libya's emerging political actors following the ouster of Gaddafi remain unclear. The assassination of Libyan rebels top commander Abdel Fattah Younes last month has further fueled this uncertainty. In this series, Al-Akhbar takes a closer look at Libya’s new military leadership divided among those with foreign loyalties like Khalifa Haftar, Salafi credentials like Abdel Hakim Belhaj, and tribal allegiances like Suleiman Obaydi.
Part I: Khalifa Haftar: Washington’s Wager
A leading figure among the rebel military leadership, Khalifa Haftar is part of a very small circle of military and political elites that may decide the future of Libya. He continues to wield influence, despite his battlefield failures against Gaddafi’s forces, especially in eastern Libya. His role is expected to grow further, given his strong ties to the US. Haftar lived in the US for nearly twenty years before returning to Libya after the February 17 uprising. A former colonel in the Libyan army, Haftar belongs to the al-Farjani tribe with roots traced to the Bani Hilal — a confederation of Arabian Bedouin tribes that have populated North Africa for centuries. In 1986, Gaddafi placed Haftar in charge of Libyan forces in Chad during the Chadian-Libyan conflict. Chad’s forces benefited from French aerial support and soundly defeated the Libyan colonel and his men. Haftar was captured in 1987 in Chad along with hundreds of Libyan soldiers. Those near Gaddafi accused Haftar of treason for abandoning the army and allowing his soldiers to fall prisoner.
Haftar and his men remained in prison for many years. Some of his forces were eventually released and they returned to Chad. Haftar and his remaining men joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) in 1988, establishing its military wing, the Libyan National Army (LNA). In 1990, Chad’s president Hissene Habre was overthrown by Idriss Déby and Haftar and his forces were relocated to the Democratic Republic of Congo, then Zaire. They later received training in the American state of Virginia near the CIA headquarters at Langley. A report by the Congressional Research Service issued in December 1996 corroborated this information, also claiming that many members of the LNA remained in the US.
In mid-March 2011, Haftar entered Benghazi from Egypt to join the rebellion against Gaddafi. He took charge of the rebels’ army, which was in need of a field commander. Yet, reports indicate that Haftar was not very successful as a field command, often providing inaccurate information about the progress of combat. Some hold him responsible for losses suffered by opposition forces on the eastern front. After NATO's intervention, Haftar and his team were replaced with other military officers who had either defected or resigned from the army because they refused to work with Gaddafi. One of Haftar’s adversaries, General Abdel Fattah Younes, was appointed commander-in-chief of the rebel army but was assassinated on July 28. Younes was accused of being in contact with Gaddafi and was summoned to stand before an investigating committee. He was killed prior to appearing before the committee.
Some reports affirm that Haftar’s LNA was financed and armed by the US. The US had given similar support in the 1980s to Contras in Nicaragua fighting to overthrow Sandanista rule.
Haftar’s stock in Washington’s books may rise given his concern with the presence of Islamist groups among the rebel fighting forces. The US hopes that Haftar will be able reorganize the Libyan army and limit the influence of Salafi groups now surfacing in Tripoli. Some sources even suggest that Haftar might be appointed prime minister of the transitional government. He is seen as both loyal to the US and respected enough in Libya to be able to reunite the army and end the chaos caused by the remaining presence of armed groups and pockets of Gaddafi loyalists.
There are many hurdles, however, in Haftar’s path to power. For one, his adversaries in Libya have cast him in a negative light. Some say his weakness stems from his collaboration with the CIA, even before he was captured in Chad. These critics contend that his 1986 capture was staged by US agencies - and in cahoots with Haftar - in order to deal a blow to Gaddafi. They cite this collaboration as a prime example, arguing that had he not already had strong ties with Washington, he would not have received training in the US at a time when the latter’s relations with Libya were tense due to the1988 Lockerbie bombing.
These suspicions are corroborated by US reports about Haftar. Some reports affirm that Haftar’s LNA was financed and armed by the US. The US had given similar support in the 1980s to Contras in Nicaragua fighting to overthrow Sandanista rule. Former President Ronald Reagan took it upon himself to overthrow Gaddafi, ordering a US air force bombing of Gaddafi’s compound in Bab al-Azizia in April 1986. However, Gaddafi was in hiding at the time and survived the attack.
A May 1991 New York Times report spoke of the CIA’s patronage of Haftar and his men. The report stated that the agency used to train them near a base in the Chadian capital N’Djamena. When Gaddafi asked the new government under Déby’s leadership to hand Haftar and his men over, Chad turned down the request and allowed the US to move the group to Zaire. There, half of Haftar’s men agreed to return to Libya, while the rest, including Haftar, were taken to Kenya, before finally settling in the US. Once in the US, members of the group settled in different parts of the country and were granted political asylum, underwent further training, and received medical and financial assistance.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.