A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 16, 2014

Who is General Khalifa Haftar? And Is (or Was) He America's Man in Libya?

Gen. Khalifa Haftar (Wikipedia)
The man who led the attack on Islamist militias in Benghazi today, former (or perhaps just renegade)  Lieutenant General Khalifa Haftar, is an enigmatic figure who played an important role in the fight against Qadhafi. (His name is variously transliterated as Haftar, Hifter, and even Hefter. I'm sticking with Haftar as that's what this blog has been using in the past.)

Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is a member of the Farjani tribe, and around 65 years old. In the 1980s, as an officer in the Libyan Army, Qadhafi named him as commander of Libyan forces in Chad. He was captured at the Battle of Wadi Doum in 1987, and Qadhafi, who denied Libyan troops were in Chad, disowned the captives. This turned him against Qadhafi. There are conflicting reports as to  whether he was jailed in Libya or remained in Chad,  In Chad and joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) in 1988, and created its military wing, the Libyan National Army (LNA). They operated in Chad with the blessings of Chadian President Hissene Habre. When Habre was overthrown by Idriss Deby in 1990, the LNA moved to Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

He subsequently moved to the United States, reportedly with some LNA fighters. The 20 years of exile Haftar spent in the United States gave rise to much speculation that the LNA was receiving support and funding from the CIA. It is frequently pointed out that during that time he lived in the DC suburb of Vienna, Virginia.

It doesn't prove anything, but those of us who live in Northern Virginia are well aware that Vienna, which is just a few miles west of CIA headquarters in Langley, is a popular bedroom community for mid-level CIA employees. During this period the LNA reportedly kept a Virginia postal address.

Newsweek, July 20, 1981
Let's say that the LNA's funding, or the exact mechanism by which Haftar and 300 fighters were moved from Zaire to Kenya and then the US, remains somewhat unclear,  and you may draw your own conclusions. If you choose to believe he lived for 20 years up the road from the CIA, opposing Qadhafi at a time when the latter was labeled the most dangerous man in the world (right) and somehow he never had links with the CIA, go right ahead and believe that.

In March of 2011, after the outbreak of fighting against Qadhafi, Haftar returned to Libya, and quickly was named to a senior command in the rebel army. many reports suggested that he was the US candidate to lead the rebellion, perhaps due to his opposition to Islamist groups in the rebel coalition. Initially a spokesman claimed he was named the overall rebel military commander but subsequently it was clarified that he had he third-ranking post, Commander of Land Forces. He was given the rank of Lieutenant General. He reportedly built up excellent  contacts in eastern Libya from that time, and is also given much credit

Some time after the defeat of Qadhafi, Haftar apparently retired, though it's not clear when exactly; when he called for a coup in February of this year, he government said he was retired but he seemed to think he was still active.

Then, on Valentine's day this year, came the Haftar "coup" in which Haftar posted an online video declaring that "the national command of the Libyan Army is declaring a movement for a new road map," and proclaiming the suspension of Parliament. The military stayed in its barracks and the whole thing became a laughingstock. This blog quipped "Libya:What if They Gave a Coup and Nobody Came? And this made the rounds: "Haftar announces an inqilab," punning on the fact that inqilab, the Arabic word for a coup, has as its root mening "turning over."

The government ordered Haftar's arrest, but given the chaotic situation in Libya he remained free, and today he demonstrated that he can indeed deploy troops and at least one Air Force aircraft.

During the February incident Haftar explicitly said it was not a coup and rejected military rule. For Arabic speakers, here's the February video:

Today's events suggest Haftar is still a man to be reckoned with. Is he still (if he really ever was) America's man in Libya? Or is he just a loose cannon? Note that today his troops attacked some of the same Islamist militias in Benghazi accused of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 and the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Payback?

Some of the  sources used for this post:

Wikipedia, Khalifa Belqasim Haftar

Bashie El-Baker, Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 28, 2011: Libya's New Generals (I): Conflicting Loyalties. Part I: Khalifa Haftar, Washington's Wager.

Brian Todd, Tim Lister and Katie Glaeser, CNN, April 4, 2011:Khalifa Haftar: The man who left Virginia to lead Libya's rebels.

Reuters, April 1, 2011: Rebel army chief is veteran Gaddafi foe--think-tank  (Summarizing a Jamestown Foundation study which is only available to subscribers.)

No comments: