home > this article
Libya’s Field-Marshall Khalifa Haftar – the returnee
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
Libya can qualify today as a failed state. It has two governments, two armies, a huge swath of land bordering the Sahel, Tunisia, Algeria, Chad, and Sudan. Its territories have become a safe haven for jihadists of all loyalties and a conduit for arms and drug smuggling from and to the African continent and southern Europe. Libya, once high-ranking in the oil-exporting industry, has stopped all production since its oil fields have changed hands several times and due to lack of maintenance, its installations have become almost obsolete.
Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya since 1969 when his military coup toppled the Sanussi monarchy. After the toppling and execution of Gaddafi in 2013, Libya became the prey of local and international Islamic extremist organizations such as the Islamic State (ISIS), which took advantage of the absence of government to establish themselves in the vacuum. The dismantling of the Libyan nation-state and the danger created by the emergence of a potential jihadist state similar to the one created in Syria and Iraq in 2014 by ISIS, has brought external powers to try through local clients to recover the leftovers of what used to be the Libyan state.
As a result, two rival entities crystallized since the beginning of the civil war in Libya. One ultimately became the “State of Libya” with its capital in Tripoli headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj. The Tripoli government is recognized by the United Nations, and its main political and military allies are Turkey and Qatar. This state has also become the safe haven of numerous jihadist and terrorist organizations.
The “second Libya” is centered in the Benghazi region, headed by self-proclaimed Field-Marshall Khalifa Haftar, actively supported by Egypt, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia, France, and Italy. Haftar’s troops have subdued the whole of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), the Gulf of Sidra shores, and have reached the geographical area of Tripolitania (western part of Libya). Until now, they failed to storm the Libyan capital at Tripoli and put an end to the political dichotomy that prevails in Libya.
Who is the enigmatic Khalifa Haftar who could eventually become Libya’s unifier and ruler in the future?
Little is known about this officer who assisted Muammar Gaddafi in 1969 to topple the Sanussi monarchy. By one account, Khalifa Belqasim Haftar (Arabic – خليفة بلقاسم حفتر) was born on November 7, 1943, in the eastern Libyan city of Ajdabiya (اجدابيا) in the al-Wahat Governorate. Haftar belongs to the Farjani tribe, geographically neighbors of the Qadhadhfa tribe in the Sirte Governorate. Muammar Gaddafi was a member of the tribe whose origin lies in the Moroccan Sahara.
After he obtained his secondary education in the eastern town of Derna (1961-1964), Haftar joined the Benghazi Royal Military College in 1964 (where he met Gaddafi) and graduated two years later in September 1966 as an artillery officer. Then in the 1970s, Haftar attended courses in Nasserite Egypt and obtained a special three years degree for foreign officers in the Frunze military academy in the Soviet Union (1975-78).
It was only logical that he joined Gaddafi in 1969 and assisted him in overthrowing old King Idris.
Haftar’s early historiography refers to events that never took place, mainly invented, so it seems, to stress unique milestones in his military and political career. One of the main examples is the inclusion of Haftar in the Revolutionary Council established by Gaddafi in the aftermath of his coup. Haftar’s biography claims that he was appointed a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, whose 12 members accompanied Gaddafi throughout most of his political career. In fact, his name never appeared in the 12 original members, nor was it there when Gaddafi decided to purge the council in 1977 after an attempted “coup d’état” against him. The Council was reduced to only five members.
Two more “milestones” in his biography relate to his so-called participation in the war against Israel. According to one of his biographers, Haftar joined a battalion of Libyan volunteers in 1967 to fight Israel in the Sinai in the Six Day War, but unfortunately, for this group, the war ended quicker than expected. The truth is that King Idris of Libya opposed any participation in the war, especially since Libya was under British rule at the time.
The second “milestone” relates to Haftar joining Libyan troops in the war against Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War as part of the Libyan expeditionary force. Haftar was commander of the artillery in the 3rd mechanized brigade and, according to this biographer, took part in the famous slugfest known as the battle of “The Chinese Farm” near the Suez Canal. While it is true that Gaddafi was very eager to join the Egyptian troops in the fight against Israel, his enthusiasm was not matched by the Egyptian President Sadat who refused quite bluntly to allow the Libyans to join his troops. The Libyan convoy was stopped at the border with Egypt and spent the war stationed there, a fact that created the basis for a permanent crisis between Sadat and Gaddafi afterward and planted the seeds of the future brief war between Libya and Egypt in 1977. As for Haftar, he continued to ascend the echelons in the military and reached his ultimate rank of colonel in the Libyan army.
Haftar, who in the meantime was appointed as commander of the Eastern Area Forces (the Benghazi-Koufra geographical area), made a renewed appearance during the last episode of the Libyan-Chadian war (1987), a war that was marked by four Libyan interventions in Chad (1978, 1979, 1980–1981 and 1983–1987). Gaddafi’s goal was to annex the northern part of Chad (the Aouzou Strip) which he claimed to be a part of Libya and by the same token to expel the French from the area and use Chad as a base of expansion in Central Africa. This war sealed Haftar’s career and dramatically changed the course of his life.
Appointed by Gaddafi as commander of the Libyan expeditionary force meant to defeat the Chadian militias, Haftar proved to be a very poor tactician, lacking the ability to oversee the arena, analyzing the terrain where his troops were maneuvering in an open killing zone, misunderstanding his “soft belly” deployment facing the Chadians, and accordingly, failing to use his superior firepower. Moreover, he failed to utilize his overwhelming intelligence gathering capability against a shadow enemy who stormed his units and destroyed his defenses, killing hundreds of his soldiers. Finally, Haftar’s forces with 300 of his soldiers surrendered to the Chadians (assisted by French officers) in the notorious battle of Wadi Doum.
Gaddafi abandoned him and his men, refusing to negotiate with Chad, claiming Libya had no military presence in Chad and, therefore, he did not feel any need to negotiate any settlement with the Chadian Authorities on the return of the POW’s to Libya. Moreover, adding insult to injury, a prize was put on Haftar’s head under the charge of “high treason.” There was no way for him to return to Libya.
The road to Haftar’s changing sides was very short. Haftar vowed to take revenge and dedicated himself to topple Gaddafi’s regime. Indeed, while confined to his prison cell, Haftar was approached by the CIA and was not hard to recruit; the socialist, pan-Arabist revolutionary became a CIA agent. A year later, he received funds from the U.S. administration meant to finance an army in the Chadian capital N’Djamena whose sole aim was to topple Gaddafi. This was the beginning of the Libyan National Army (LNA) that he leads today in Libya. The LNA was meant to become the military wing of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), an opposition group led by Mohammed Magrief, one of the five remaining members of the original revolutionary council established by Gaddafi after the coup in 1969, which later became the National Front Party.
Magrief testified that he met Haftar six months after his detention at the request of the then President of Chad, Hussein Hebre.3 Magrief reported that Haftar was depressed, and his morale very low. He expressed his anger at Gaddafi’s behavior denying any links with the 1,200 Libyan soldiers held as prisoners of war in Chad.
Haftar expressed his willingness to be included in the National Front for the Salvation of Libya and his readiness to organize a military force based on the soldiers held in Chad to assist in toppling Gaddafi. Magrief, according to this same testimony, told Haftar it was not his decision to make and that he had to consult with the other members of the NFSL. However, before the convening of the NFSL, Magrief traveled to Washington where he met officials from “American intelligence” who refused to allow Haftar to join the NFSL as well as to create a military force against Gaddafi, since, as Magrief put it, “military law does not allow prisoners to go back and fight.”
Magrief said that he raised the subject with Saddam Hussein, who opposed the idea relating to the formation of a military force against Gaddafi. Magrief stressed the fact that members of the NFSL opposed Haftar joining the front because of his “dirty past” of torturing and killing Libyans and recruiting child soldiers. However, the majority of the members of the NFSL, after hearing the reports from Washington and Baghdad, decided to send a ten-man delegation to Chad and meet Haftar. In the aftermath of the meeting, the 11-member committee accepted the idea, and 700 soldiers joined the front in what became later the Libyan National Army (LNA).
The nucleus of the LNA received financial assistance from some Arab capitals while Saddam Hussein contributed five million dollars, a sum meant to purchase 200 Land Cruiser cars. He also supplied military equipment and aircraft while former Libyan officers were enlisted to train the force.
In 1990, however, a coup in Chad brought to power Idris Debbi, Gaddafi’s ally. Haftar and his men had to depart, leaving all the material received from Saddam Hussein to the forces of Idris Debbi. The American sponsors first evacuated them to Nigeria, then to Zaire (the Democratic Republic of Congo of today), then to Kenya, and finally to the United States. They were granted refugee status in the United States, and they were relocated across the United States. Haftar, who received American citizenship, settled in Virginia, near the CIA headquarters in Langley. Still, he was allowed to run a training camp for his LNA. In 1994, Haftar resigned from the NFSL and created the Libyan Change and Reform Movement, which was a failure. Undeterred by his failure, Haftar continued to plan coups in Libya and attempts against Gaddafi’s life up to 1996, before disappearing from the public scene.
With the outbreak of the civil war in Libya in 2011, Haftar re-emerged and joined the rebels. He entered Libya from Egypt in March 2011 with the goal of becoming the rebels’ military commander. Instead, he was appointed head of the ground forces by the National Transitional Council (NTC) and given the rank of Lieutenant General. His archrival was Major-General Abd-El-Fattah Younes, himself a former member of the five-member Revolutionary Council appointed by Gaddafi in 1977. Haftar was later accused of having been implicated in Younes’ assassination in Benghazi, in July 2011.
His nomination as Chief of Staff in December 2011 to succeed Younes was severely opposed, and he was forced to retire, withdrawing to his house in Benghazi. Haftar was never fully trusted by the anti-Gaddafi politicians, who suspected him of being a CIA agent. By early 2012, as an outcast, he seemed a total recluse. A second attempt on his life occurred in July, prompting him to vanish from the limelight of the media.
A year later, in 2013, Haftar made a comeback by publishing a political roadmap for Libya that no one took seriously. But that underestimated Haftar’s deceit and deception. What observers of the Libyan domestic political scene failed to realize was that Haftar, who made his first steps against Gaddafi fighting with radical Islamic organizations, succeeded in re-portraying himself as Libya’s savior from Islamist organizations who were spreading chaos, death, and inhumane atrocities. In May 2014, he launched what was nicknamed “Operation Dignity” in Benghazi and the eastern part of Libya against the radical Islamic organizations including those that identified themselves as the Muslim Brotherhood, a fact that brought him immediate support from Egypt and the Emirates. Transformed, with a new title of Lieutenant-General, Haftar rallied around him a large base of support among former officers of the Libyan army who had fought against the regime in 2011 and who now felt endangered as the Islamist wave began to purge the state of elements of the “old guard.”
By February 2014, Haftar was once again on the TV screens in an old-fashioned “television coup” by screening a pre-filmed video in which he laid out the political roadmap “to save the country” and announced his takeover of the institutions of the Libyan state. As in 2013, no one took him seriously. However, unlike the past when Haftar did not take any course of action to materialize his leadership, in May, his forces conducted airstrikes on Benghazi and attacked Tripoli. It was the beginning of Libya’s second civil war – or the continuation of the first one that never ended.
In March 2015, after a successful campaign against the Islamists, he was promoted by the Benghazi Parliament as the supreme commander of the “Libyan National Army” (LNA) while the Tripoli government declared him a war criminal. September 2016 witnessed the takeover of the oil installations in the Gulf of Sidra. The next year Haftar and Sarraj reached an agreement according to which they would cooperate to solve the Libyan crisis. However, nothing came out of this agreement, and the war between the two Libya’s continued.
Haftar sought military assistance from Russia, and in 2017, he secured $2 billion worth of weapons despite a UN arms embargo.
During the summer of 2018, rumors spread about Haftar’s poor health. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that Haftar was in stable condition after he was admitted to a French military hospital. Haftar recovered very quickly from what seemed to have been a stroke.
As previously mentioned, Haftar’s troops succeeded in the last four years in conquering most of the Libyan littoral, with the active assistance and participation of the Egyptian, Emirati, and French military (this time siding with Haftar and not against him as in 1987). By April 2019, Haftar, who had been promoted to the rank of Field-Marshall, had reached the outskirts of the capital Tripoli only to find himself fighting against a powerful alliance led by Turkey, radical Islamic organizations, and militias assisting the Tripoli government. To the amazement of all observers, Turkey not only assisted the Tripoli Government with weapons, but it also sent military advisers, drones, a limited number of troops, and Islamists who fought in Syria against the Bashar Assad regime.
In April 2019, President Donald Trump spoke by phone with Haftar. The White House issued a statement that the president “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”
A year after the beginning of the offensive against Tripoli and its vicinity, Libya is divided more than ever, Benghazi and Tripoli have suffered tremendous destruction, oil-shipping terminals are unused, even though from time to time some oil exports occur. Extremist Islamic State militias that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State are very much present in the south and western parts of Libya. Libya’s future and reunification are linked very closely to Haftar’s future. He is 77 and in frail health. Further changes will occur in Libya as it has become one more theater of conflict between regional actors and superpowers. Haftar is not the endgame for Libya.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.