He presents himself as the tough, no-nonsense military man who forged a national army out of the broken remnants of Libya’s security forces in the years after the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi’s longtime dictatorship, and the only man who can bring order to the fractured north African country.
So when Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar was confronted by Peter Millett, who served as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Libya until 2018, about his own deputy’s track record of battlefield atrocities – including summary executions of prisoners – he expected quick results.
“I said, ‘There are numerous videos of him executing prisoners,’” Millett recalls in an interview with The Independent.
“Without any due process, he shoots them in the back of the head. You need to deal with it,” he told Haftar.
But the all-powerful “field marshal”, as he has been anointed by the eastern Libyan parliament, demurred.
“He admitted, ‘I don’t control all the groups under me,’” says the retired diplomat.
The contrast between Haftar’s vast ambitions and curtailed capabilities has now emerged as the key stumbling block to ending Libya’s increasingly violent and globally tangled war. That conflict has for nine months threatened to engulf Libya’s most populous areas, potentially leaving thousands more dead and injured, and creating a fresh flood of refugees to Europe.
Over the weekend, Haftar and his rival Fayez al-Serraj, prime minister of the UN-recognised government of Libya, were in Berlin, cajoled by the leaders of Russia, Egypt, Turkey and France, and officials from other nations, to hammer out a permanent truce that could lead to a lasting settlement. The two refused to meet, but a shaky ceasefire declared on Sunday has mostly held for now.
But those who know the 77-year-old former Washington resident suggest Haftar is merely playing for time as he builds up his forces and his international support in a quest for absolute control.
“Khalifa Haftar has had every opportunity to help Libya form unified security institutions united to counter terorism and provide stability,” says Jonathan Winer, a former US envoy to Libya, who has met repeatedly with Haftar.
“He rejected every opportunity to do this, and it’s clear that his goal is conquest. It’s been clear to me that he wants to replace Gaddafi as dictator and name one of his sons as successor.”
Haftar has been waging a non-stop war to win control of the country for nearly six years, and he has managed to seduce several regional and global powers into endorsing his campaign or providing resources with promises of quick, easy victories that rarely come to fruition.
“He’s always two weeks away from total victory,” quips Winer.
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Outraged by Haftar’s recent move to block Libyan oil exports that are the lifeblood of the civilian economy, Winer blasted him on social media for “blackmailing” the country.
There’s plenty of blame to go around among the various Libyan and international players for the never-ending crisis, which is now approaching nine years, and has increasingly become a global proxy war.
“Both sides are equally to blame,” says Olivier Guitta, a Libya specialist who runs Globalstrat, a London-based risk-management consultancy. “The main issues are not Libyan issues, it’s a world issue. But none of the parties on both sides are going to give up. There’s too much at stake.”
Haftar has spelled out terms for an end to the fighting that amount to total capitulation by his enemies. Describing his rivals as a collection of terrorists and criminal gangs, Haftar insists that the Tripoli-based government of national accord disband all the armed groups now protecting the capital from his fighters and allow his forces to enter the city before any talk of a new government.
“There will be no agreement except on these terms, the terms of the Libyan army,” Akram Bouhlaiga, a top aide to Haftar, tells The Independent. “If they are not abided by, nothing will happen.”
Bouhlaiga says that Haftar has repeatedly insisted he has no political ambitions, even though he has subjugated the parliament of eastern Libya into a rubber stamp for his administration.
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“Field Marshal Haftar has never asked for authority,” he says. “He has refused to be president. He has said repeatedly at 77 he is too old and Libya should be led by a young man who is less than 40 years old.”
Though he has conquered much of eastern Libya and has a tenuous hold on the south, most Libyans live in the country’s northwest, including the capital Tripoli, which he is now attempting to besiege, and the well-armed and battle-hardened city of Misrata, which was at the forefront of wars against Gaddafi and Isis.
Former officials contend that Haftar is promising more than he can deliver, that his project is inherently unworkable, and that it will only lead to further chaos in the country. Even the new official name of his army, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, suggests the kind of chauvinistic project that would divide rather than unify Libyans, which include ethnic Amazighs or Berbers, Tebu tribes with ties to Chad, and Tuareg peoples of the trans-Sahara.
“The people of western Libya are not going to agree to accept being ruled by a dictator,” says Winer. “Even if he could take Tripoli he couldn’t hold it. There wouldn’t be enough Libyans to control the city for him.”
Whatever he ends up calling himself in a future Libya, former officials who have dealt with him repeatedly warn that Haftar is a military man who tolerates little dissent. His idol and patron, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has plunged his nation into its mostly politically repressive era in its recent history.
“Psychologically he’s a military person,” says Winer, now a fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. “He doesn’t believe in democratic processes, or political processes or compromises. His aim is to take over everything in Libya, including oil exports.”
None of the parties on both sides are going to give up. There’s too much at stake
Olivier Guitta, Globalstrat
In countering Libya’s surging Islamists, Haftar courted like-minded allies in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who provide him with weapons and logistical support. Russia, seeking to build influence in north Africa, printed money for him that has contributed to Libya’s runaway inflation.
It has been France that has provided him with a sheen of respectability as a viable leader of Libya. French special forces have partnered with Haftar to fight violent extremists in the country’s east and south since 2014.
Haftar built on that relationship to win the acquiescence of Paris for his broader aims, which include toppling the UN-backed authority that France ostensibly supports.
“They saw him as their man,” says a former official. “They’ve been hedging their bets and giving Haftar political protection.”
But in recruiting foreign backers, Haftar has also alienated powerful adversaries. Turkey has become the strongest backer of the Tripoli government, deploying military personnel, Syrian fighters and sophisticated military gear to counter weapons and mercenaries supplied by the UAE and Russia.
Algeria, which is North Africa’s most powerful military force, is also considered hostile to Haftar and sees him as an agent of Egyptian influence along its eastern border.
Russian, Libyan and Turkish officials meet
Those who know Haftar says he is driven by resentment and betrayal. He signed onto Gaddafi’s 1968 coup against the Libyan monarchy only to be discarded once he was captured in an ill-fated war. Driven into exile in the US, he became a western intelligence asset, returning after Gaddafi’s fall only to be ignored once a post-Gaddafi Libya was being assembled.
Now he’s the one betraying world leaders. He has repeatedly undermined international peace initiatives, humiliating hosts in France, Italy and most recently in Russia, where he angered his patron Vladimir Putin by ditching talks in Moscow.
“Even foreign powers are starting to look at him as not being capable of delivering,” says Guitta.
Haftar had been threatening to march on Tripoli since 2014, a claim which sounded ludicrous when he was 600 miles away in the eastern city of Benghazi. Over six years he has fought and schemed his way to the capital.
Few believe that with his ultimate prize in sight, he would give up now and sign a peace deal that leads to a political process that would subject him to an elected civilian government.
That was the offer he rejected last April when he launched an unprovoked attack on the capital ahead of highly anticipated national peace talks in the city of Ghadames, sponsored by the UN and which had taken months of organising.
“I was surprised he launched the attack in April within days of the national conference,” says Millett, now a risk-management consultant.
“He would have gotten 80 to 85 per cent of what he wanted, and a strong role in the new political process. I’m surprised he gave that up for something which was a gamble. It shows his overconfidence.”