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