The unraveling of Libya

Jon Lee Anderson writes: Early last year, General Khalifa Haftar left his home in northern Virginia — where he had spent most of the previous two decades, at least some of that time working with the Central Intelligence Agency — and returned to Tripoli to fight his latest war for control of Libya. Haftar, who is a mild-looking man in his early seventies, has fought with and against nearly every significant faction in the country’s conflicts, leading to a reputation for unrivalled military experience and for a highly flexible sense of personal allegiance. In the Green Mountains, the country’s traditional hideout for rebels and insurgents, he established a military headquarters, inside an old airbase surrounded by red-earth farmland and groves of hazelnut and olive trees. Haftar’s force, which he calls the Libyan National Army, has taken much of the eastern half of the country, in an offensive known as Operation Dignity. Most of the remainder, including the capital city of Tripoli, is held by Libya Dawn, a loose coalition of militias, many of them working in a tactical alliance with Islamist extremists. Much as General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has boasted of doing in Egypt, General Haftar proposes to destroy the Islamist forces and bring peace and stability—enforced by his own army.

When I visited Haftar’s base, earlier this winter, I passed a Russian-made helicopter gunship and was greeted by a group of fighters unloading ammo. The base was in a state of constant alert. Haftar is a top-priority assassination target for Libya Dawn’s militias. Last June, a suicide bomber exploded a Jeep outside his home near Benghazi, killing four guards but missing the primary target. Now there is heavy security around Haftar at all times. At his base, soldiers frisk visitors and confiscate weapons. A few months ago, someone reportedly attempted to kill him with an explosive device concealed in a phone, and so his men collect phones, too.

Haftar greeted me in a spotless office with a set of beige sofas and a matching carpet. Wearing an old-fashioned regimental mustache and a crisp khaki uniform, he looks more like a retired schoolteacher than like the American-backed tyrant his enemies describe. In a deliberate voice, he told me why he had gone back to war. After participating in the 2011 uprising against Muammar Qaddafi, he tried to find a place for himself in Libya’s new politics. When he didn’t succeed, he said, he went home to Virginia for a time, “to enjoy my grandchildren.” All the while, he watched as Libya floundered under a succession of weak governments, and the country’s militias grew more powerful. Last summer, Islamist extremists moved to seize Benghazi; in a merciless campaign aimed at the remains of civil society, assassins killed some two hundred and seventy lawyers, judges, activists, military officers, and policemen — including some of Haftar’s old friends and military colleagues. “There was no justice and no protection,” he said. “People no longer left their houses at night. All of this upset me greatly. We had no sooner left behind Qaddafi’s rule than we had this?”

Haftar reached out to contacts in what remained of Libya’s armed forces, in civil society, in tribal groups, and, finally, in Tripoli. “Everyone told me the same thing,” he said. “ ‘We are looking for a savior. Where are you?’ I told them, ‘If I have the approval of the people, I will act.’ After popular demonstrations took place all over Libya asking me to step in, I knew I was being pushed toward death, but I willingly accepted.”

Like many self-appointed saviors, Haftar spoke with a certain self-admiring fatalism. But his history is much more complex than he cares to acknowledge. [Continue reading…]

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