Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Curious Twist of Fate for Libya's Rogue General

Libya is back in the news this week, with the emergence of a wobbly new unity agreement, and rumors of imminent international military intervention to ward off a takeover of the country by the Islamic State (ISIS).  In all of this,  74-year General Khalifa Heftar (who is often described as ‘rogue’ for his past brash challenges to authority, and either loved or detested for his hard stand against “terrorists”), has continued as a key actor in imperialist aims of creating a stable neo-colonial outpost in Libya.

Heftar had served as a senior officer during former Revolutionary Pan-Africanist Muammar Gaddafi’s war in neighboring Chad in the 80′s. In that context, the U.S. allegedly recruited him as a potential asset in its undeclared war with Gaddafi. Heftar lived in a Washington, D.C. suburb for years, and returned to Libya at the start of the 2011 counter-revolution to stake a claim to leadership of the western-backed rebels’ armed forces.

In order to understand Heftar’s potential heightened relevance, one needs to grasp the ever-more convoluted political situation within the country: As of late October, there were two competing governments, one in the East, the House of Representatives (HOR), recognized by the international community, the other, the General National Congress (GNC), based in the West.  The GNC is a breakaway group dominated by Islamists, representing, among others, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Libya’s prototypical armed Islamist organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).  The ‘split’ between the HOR and the GNC in mid-2014 was motivated in large part by General Heftar’s formation of a movement he called Karama, or Dignity, whose platform has been to push the Islamists out. Heftar is currently commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which constitutes the country’s most cohesive and well-trained military force.  He says he is politically neutral, but ‘open’ to supporting the new government.

U.N. Special Representative Bernardino Leon had been trying for a year to stitch these two strange bedfellows, the HOR and the GNC, together in a government of national unity. Negotiations held in the Moroccan town of Skheirat have been plagued by problems, but Heftar’s implicit exclusion from the government was one of the reasons for the collapse in November of the previous round of talks. Leon’s successor, German diplomat Martin Kobler, was confirmed in his position as negotiator on the same day as the ISIS attack in Paris, which highlighted the ISIS threat to Europe, and the dangers of its growing presence in North Africa.

Over the last year, ISIS has profited greatly from internecine fighting to establish itself along a large swathe of Libya’s coast, centered at the Gaddafi’s former hometown of Sirte, and has been ‘softening’ towns like Ajdabia (in the East) and Sabratha (in the West) for takeover, while it moves towards key oil installations in the South and North-East. One of Kobler’s first actions has been to travel to Al Beida, site of Heftar’s compound, to extend an enthusiastic hand to the General.

“Finally, I made it,” Kobler told Heftar at the start of a meeting inside Heftar’s compound in the Eastern town of Al Beida on December 16th — an ambiguous turn of phrase at best.

The next day, Kobler presided over the signing of an agreement whose proposed government includes one of Heftar’s staunch supporters as one of two proposed Deputy Prime Ministers.   Heftar is said to have received ‘credible assurances’ that he will keep his role in the new government, but is unlikely to take any promises at face value, as illustrated by his comments at the meeting with Kobler: Heftar said he would welcome the help of any power that was committed to fighting terrorists — and cited Russia as an example. That controversial statement was  evocative of former Libyan Prime Minister Mustafa Benhalim’s approach to the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, as a means to goad U.S. President Eisenhower to provide desperately needed development assistance (that gamble failed, and contributed to the coup that brought Gaddafi to power).

A key point in all of this is that there is no longer a clear line tying the original, somewhat ad hoc rebel government (the National Transitional Council) to the freshly-created, somewhat ad hoc government. The circa 2014 reconstituted GNC was never an elected body; the HORs voted itself an extended mandate after its formal term expired last October. The new unity government has been affirmed by a minority of members of both the GNC and the HOR, acting as individuals, not as official representatives of their respective governments. This, apparently, is good enough for the international community and the U.N., which sees those supporting the agreement as the closest to a quorum as is humanly possible (vocal minorities of both governments have vowed to fight the agreement).

Thus General Heftar and the LNA have suddenly something of a tie-breaker. This has infuriated those who see him as an opportunistic autocrat in the making, as well as those on the inside, who see him as one of the principle obstacles to a well-orchestrated Islamist takeover.

Whatever the international community’s plan at this point — and Heftar or no — all will come to naught without a substantial, coordinated international assistance program, and a plan that holds the LNA, and certainly Heftar, firmly accountable to the government.  Coordinated, Western-led bombing of ISIS strongholds won’t cut it.  A comprehensive reconstruction program is what is needed, and should have been implemented immediately in the wake of the intervention in 2011, before Benghazi fell prey to a coordinated campaign of assassination and intimidation. Necessary support would include direct military advice, a lifting of the arms embargo, a robust peacekeeping and disarmament force, and substantial security training, combined with multi-pronged development assistance and job creation projects. It is unclear what will happen next, but current developments are the most promising form of confusion to hit Libya in some time.

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