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Libya’s Coming Forever War: Why Backing One Militia Against Another is Not the Solution

On April 15, President Donald Trump telephoned Libyan militia commander Khalifa Haftar and praised his Libyan National Army’s offensive against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. Citing a “shared vision” for Libya, the U.S. president acknowledged Haftar’s value in fighting terrorism, maintaining oil production, and shepherding the country’s democratic transition.

But nothing could be farther from the truth.  Haftar’s surprise attack on April 4, dubbed the “Flood of Dignity,” is in fact a brazen grab for power and plunder by an unrepentant authoritarian. Beyond the humanitarian disaster it has caused — over 400 dead, including civilians, and tens of thousands displaced — it will be a boon to terrorism, especially a resurgent Islamic State, stall oil production, and set back any chance for an inclusive politics. And ironically, regardless of outcome, it will bolster the influence of the Tripolitanian militias that Haftar ostensibly has pledged to dismantle. His offensive is likely to send Libya into a spiral of low-level militia clashes that could endure for years.

Trump’s comments belie a profound misunderstanding of Libya’s fractured landscape and balance of power. What is most worrisome is not necessarily his embrace of a fellow authoritarian — though this is disturbing — but his misguided view of Haftar as a game-changing figure who can finally forge a degree of unity and institutionalization. Such an assumption ignores one of the truths of post-revolutionary Libya: No single military or political actor has been able to exert a preponderance of control and sovereignty. Libya’s militia bosses and factional elites, including Haftar, have long had a mutual economic and political interest in keeping conflict simmering, eschewing both decisive outcomes on the battlefield and outside attempts to end the fighting. These armed actors have also have adroitly exploited competing and uncoordinated foreign interests in Libya. It is not simply Libyan National Army’s internal contradictions and weaknesses limit Haftar’s effectiveness as a would-be proxy for outside powers hoping to unify Libya. It is the fact that the fractured security landscape of Tripolitania, and its underlying political economy and social demography, have long prohibited any one actor from achieving dominance — especially one coming from the east.

As the most powerful external actor involved in the conflict, Washington’s signals matter. The State Department and Defense Department may be trying to adopt a more even-handed and realistic policy toward the conflict, but their effectiveness is stymied by the White House’s mistaken — and very public — assumption. Rather than backing one militia over another, a clear-eyed understanding of the nature of Haftar’s forces, as well as that of his opponents, is crucial to avoiding even more blunders in Libya.

Haftar’s Militias: Neither National nor an Army

Trump’s call appears to rest on a mistaken but well-trodden narrative, advanced by Haftar’s forces, his Arab backers, and his western sympathizers, that the general’s “army” could deal a decisive military blow to Tripoli’s “Islamist and jihadist militias.” But this dichotomy is not anchored to current realities.

After the 2011 revolution, as Benghazi fell into chaos and neglect, there was indeed a very real radical Islamist militia presence, which Haftar’s so-called Operation Dignity coalition started fighting in 2014. And some of these Islamists were later backed by hardline revolutionary factions in the western Libyan cities of Tripoli and Misrata. But since Haftar’s military victory in Benghazi and his consolidation of control over eastern Libya, the threat of Islamist militias has diminished significantly. So has Qatari and Turkish interference in Libya, especially compared to the still-robust role of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. In tandem, moderate and pragmatic Libyan factions sidelined the radical presence in Tripoli and Misrata, with many militant figures exiled, imprisoned, or killed. Thus, it is a mistake to portray Tripoli as awash with radical Islam and Haftar as a savior figure coming to  eradicate it.

Aside from this inflated “radical” narrative, Haftar’s forces are hardly the professional army they appear to be. They contain a significant irregular, localized militia component, which includes foreign fighters from Chad and Sudan. Our interviews with Libyan National Army personnel, U.N. officials, and observers indicate this militia component to be somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of the army’s total. To be sure, there is a nucleus of regular infantry, armor, air force, and military police units — and it is this professional face that accounts for the public support, based on a recent poll, that Libyans accord the Libyan National Army as a welcome alternative to the country’s unruly and rapacious militias. But even this narrative is shaky. One of Haftar premier regular units, the Sa’iqa (or Thunderbolt Battalion), often described in the press as an “elite” organization, has been implicated in a string of abuses, and one of its senior officers has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

Moreover, ever since Haftar started his military campaign in Benghazi in 2014, he has relied heavily on locally constituted militias. Denoted by the euphemism “support forces” or “neighborhood youths,” these militias were tied to specific Benghazi suburbs, and many hailed from an influential local tribe, the Awaqir. These support forces acted, in effect, as rear area guards, but also assisted regular units in frontline assaults. As the conflict dragged on, they also engaged in violent vigilantism, attacking the homes and businesses of Benghazi families suspected to be loyal to Haftar’s Islamist opponents.

The presence of conservative Salafists in the Libyan National Army also belies the notion that Haftar’s forces are an institutionalized, professional force. Backed by Muammar Qadhafi in the waning years of his rule, these Salafists had a presence in the former regime’s security forces and are doctrinally hostile to the political Islamists Haftar was fighting. Salafist fighters have been crucial frontline combatants for the Libyan National Army. In areas of the east that Haftar has taken over, they’ve enjoyed some latitude to try and enforce their version of Islamic social mores. All of this suggests that any Trump administration support for Haftar on ideological grounds is misplaced. He is certainly a foe of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the White House is unwisely trying to designate as a foreign terrorist organization. But he is no secularist.

More recently, Salafists have joined Libyan National Army military units commanded by Haftar’s sons. This familial dimension of Haftar’s forces is yet more evidence that the Libyan National Army is not all that it seems. Our interviews with members of the group and its supporters suggest that with minimal military training, Haftar’s sons Khalid and Saddam were elevated to command positions, part of a broader trend of Haftar ruling through a tight clique of family members and confidantes from his tribe, the Firjan. In particular, Khaled’s unit, the 106th Brigade, has received high-end foreign equipment and weapons, leading to frequent comparisons to Libya’s most elite formation during the Qadhafi era, the 32d Reinforced Brigade, commanded by Qadhafi’s youngest son Khamis.

Finally, the acquiescence and, in some cases, active support that Haftar’s Libyan National Army enjoyed from foreign powers have also been crucial to the army’s expansion. The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France, and Russia each backed the Libyan National Army for their own reasons (whether anti-Islamism, border control, or counter-terrorism). Haftar, like many Middle Eastern proxies, has proved adroit at exploiting this patronage. And the United States also shoulders some blame: Though Washington reportedly halted military engagement with Haftar’s side in 2015, American diplomats, based on our interviews, evinced an increasingly accommodative stance toward the general, hoping to bring him into the political process and taking at face value his professed support for elections. They also adopted a muted position toward his military move across Libya’s vast southern region earlier this year, which Haftar’s camp likely perceived as a tacit green light.

During this southern advance, a security and governance vacuum allowed the Libyan National Army to effectively flip locally constituted militias — including those guarding oil installations — with offers of cash and equipment. In turning to attack Tripoli, Haftar adopted a similar strategy, hoping local militias in Tripoli and its environs would come to his side, persuaded by a mix of cash, force, and self-interested political calculations. But that plan has backfired spectacularly. Disparate militias in Tripoli that had long been at loggerheads have unified against him. Even ordinary citizens who might have welcomed Haftar into the capital as relief from the militias are turning against him.

Understanding the fractured political and security backdrop against which the Libyan National Army has encountered these obstacles is important for understanding why Trump’s faith in Haftar is misplaced.

Haftar’s Miscalculation: The Entrenched, Exploitative Tripolitanian Militias

Above all, Haftar’s rationale in the assault ignored the fact that a dizzying array of Tripolitanian militias has vested political and economic incentives to defend, in contrast to the security vacuum in the south and to the tribal demography of the east, where Haftar was more successful.

To be sure, our interviews suggest that in some cases, Haftar has been able to solicit backing in western Libya from various social constituencies and armed groups, some of which see in Haftar’s advance a chance to gain dominance over local rivals. In the town of Tarhuna, south of Tripoli, for instance, a faction of a dominant militia that was shut out of militia arrangements in the capital has been a major Libyan National Army bulwark. Some towns like Zawiya, also on the western coast, and Zintan, in the Nafusa mountains, are split between pro- and anti-Libyan National Army factions. Two of Tripoli’s main militias — the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and the Special Deterrence Force — have not fully mobilized to counter the offensive. This half-commitment is a calculated move: By deploying some forces to counter Haftar’s offensive while others abstain from fighting, the two groups hope to safeguard some leverage in any potential future deal with either of the antagonist factions.

But overall, Haftar miscalculated how hard militias in western Libya would double down to defend their economic interests and communities. Due to Libya’s centralized oil economy, territorial control in Tripoli and its environs means access to prized financial assets, which Haftar was aiming to monopolize with his attack.  Moreover, in contrast to the Libyan National Army’s model, many Tripolitanian militias — including revolutionary fighters, Islamists, warlords, and conservative Salafists — are deeply embedded in their communities.

For years, many of these Tripoli-based armed groups presented themselves as the city’s de facto police, even while they consolidated territorial control and extracted wealth through networks of corruption that enmeshed political and business elites. Although these groups managed to reduce violence around the capital, their continuous maneuvering perpetuated the status quo and ensured the militias’ continued relevance at the helm of Tripoli’s security apparatus. The recent merger of the capital’s four main armed groups into “Tripoli’s Protection Force” epitomized the entrenchment of militias in the capital and their intention to violently contest any challenges to their influence — including the arrival of Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

In addition to misreading the social and economic entrenchment of Tripolitanian militias, Haftar miscalculated the reaction of elites and militias from the port city of Misrata, which lies east of Tripoli. Once a  revolutionary and economic powerhouse, Misrata’s military influence gradually waned after Libya’s second bout of civil war in 2014 due to political and ideological divisions. Over the past four years, prominent figures, most notably the Government of National Accord’s Interior and Defense Minister Fathi Bashagha, have increasingly sought a rapprochement with eastern factions aligned with Haftar and were even receptive to including Haftar in a governing arrangement, provided he reject military rule. By contrast, hardline Islamist militia commanders in Misrata had strong reservations about any form of deal with the septuagenarian commander. Haftar’s offensive was not only betting on the element of surprise, it was also a wager that these internal divisions would hinder Misrata from reaching a consensus on how to react. However, his surprise attack was seen as a betrayal by some and an existential threat by others. The result was a city-wide popular mobilization instead.

Finally, Haftar underestimated the skill with which western Libyan militias have manipulated outside countries to bolster their political and military influence. A multitude of armed groups in and around Tripoli have presented themselves to the United States and European powers as partners on counter-terrorism and migration management and even security guarantors of the weak central Government of National Accord. American backing of government-aligned Misratan militias during the fight against the Islamic State in Sirte in 2016 is a case in point: Many of these powerful, independent armed groups were ambivalent if not hostile to the Government of National Accord. Other Tripolitanian armed groups received indirect support from Italy to counter migrant trafficking.

The militias in western Libya will continue to exploit international disharmony and solicit external support. This will include arms and material, as evidenced by Interior and Defense Minister Bashaga’s recent visit to Turkey, and even mercenaries, as demonstrated by the Libyan National Army’s recent capture of a downed central government-aligned fighter pilot of alleged Portuguese nationality. By prolonging the fighting, outside support is likely to bolster Libyan hardliners and radicals while forcing pragmatists to become more militant. Already, a mix of undesirable figures — criminal elements, Islamists, and diehard revolutionaries — is emerging on the security landscape. The continuation of the conflict will allow them to garner political influence , which may be difficult to reverse if no swift action to terminate the war is taken.

Escaping the Imbroglio

As the fighting passes the one-month mark, it is clear that whatever hopes existed for a decisive attack have vanished. Supporters of Haftar, domestic and foreign, appear to have been seduced by the narrative that the general was commanding an army against militias. This narrative was effective in the past in eastern Libya, where the struggle was more ideological and Haftar was able to capitalize on long-running social and political grievances. However, in the west, the context is different: Haftar’s attack is hardly a bold bid at state-making or the creation of a stable authoritarian order. Rather, it is a reconfiguration of a long-running militia game. In essence, the assault on Tripoli is simply one militia coalition’s bid for dominance over another.

There are signs that the conflict is entering a dangerous new phase. Facing a looming funding shortfall, Haftar’s forces may seek to militarize Libya’s oil infrastructure, or unilaterally sell oil on the market. And as Haftar demonstrates his staying power on Tripoli’s outskirts, his foreign backers will be tempted to escalate their military involvement to help tip the scales — but such assistance is more likely to cause humanitarian suffering than to actually aid his territorial advance.

Robust and resolute American engagement, albeit more even-handed and in tune with local realities than Trump’s statement, is crucial to prevent either of these scenarios from coming to pass. American diplomats can work to keep Haftar from exploiting Libya’s oil resources, as he did in 2018 when he tried to transfer oil to the eastern authorities. The U.S. government, including Congress, can dissuade regional actors from intervening further by publicly highlighting those countries’ violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya . The goal should be to bring the conflict to a point where both sides are ready to accept a ceasefire and a return to a political process.   That process should be broadly inclusive, focusing especially on communities in the east and south as well as  senior Libyan National Army officers who have been amenable to dialogue and talks with their government counterparts. Previous mistakes should be kept in mind, especially given the multiple offers Haftar was given to join in a peaceful settlement, which he has rebuffed and undercut with military force.

There is no question that the decrepit Government of National Accord needs to be replaced with a more inclusive and legitimate body. There is no question the corrupt and predatory constellation of militias in Tripoli needs to be dismantled. But the way to do this is through a combination of political negotiations and technocratic tools — which were making slow but perceptible progress before Haftar’s April 4 attack. It is not by backing one set of militias against another.

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