Containment of Khalifa Haftar’s Power Is the GNA’s Main Challenge

The arrival of the UN-backed government to Libya has carried many expectations in terms of stability and order. However, since its arrival, it has not been able to maintain stability and control over Libya’s two governments.

The Foreign Policy magazine wrote in its article: “How to contain Libya’s warlord” that the new government supporters in the international community have formed the GNA in a hurry but they didn’t put into consideration one main problem, “General Khalifa Haftar and his motley band of Qaddafi-era soldiers and militias known as the Libyan National Army (LNA).”

General Haftar is supported by a collection of various political and community leaders who have much to gain by aligning themselves with him even if only temporarily. In addition, general also enjoys popular support mainly in the eastern province of Cyrenaica as well as the support of Tobruk government and the house of representative (HoR),

The foreign policy pointed that Haftar policies have acted as a barrier against the UN-backed government as his policies tend to widen Libya’s existing political divide.  Haftar’s power has enabled him recently from rejecting the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the militia army loyal to it. Moreover, Haftar’s chief of staff recently threatened to “liberate” Tripoli from a nearby town. At the same time, Haftar’s forces have deployed themselves around Cyrenaica’s oil fields to control them under the banner of frightening ISIS that has been expanding its presence in Libya. In addition, his political allies have been trying to sell the oil already under their control independently on the world market and have even printed their own currency with the help of the Russians. According to the FP, “the Central Bank in Tripoli, which is loyal to the unity government, uses a company based in Great Britain to print Libyan dinars.” In addition, kidnapping Haftar’s critics in the areas under his control has been an obvious phenomenon recently in Benghazi and Tobruk. Haftar has enclosed among his troops “prominence of Qaddafi-era personalities and secret police operatives in his administration, offer clues about the type of state he aims to form,” reported the FP.

However, despite Haftar’s being a controversial figure as he was accused of committing war crimes during his command of Qaddafi’s war on Chad in the 1980s; he remains to sustain power in Libya that is found in many indications.

Haftar’s power has risen after the political vacuum followed the 2011 revolution and his battles against the Islamic groups. After toppling Qaddafi  authoritarian regime, many Islamist groups launched revenge campaign against their enemies. As a result, many assassinations of former members of the security and judicial services that took place in Benghazi and Cyrenaica. In response, Haftar launched a military campaign against the Islamists he called “Operation Dignity” in 2014. The campaign against Islamic groups brought different factions under Haftar’s command. The FP said that ” His Operation Dignity was embraced by large segments of the Libyan population, who viewed him as the only person capable of defying of chaos.”Two years later after Haftar’s operations, he still has strong popularity and  the military support of Egypt and the Gulf “as well as the frontline presence of French Special Forces assisting his troops, are perhaps Libya’s worst kept secret.” Moreover,  seizing  control of Benghazi and other areas has  also nominated Haftar for being the only person in Libya’s new political elite who can boast a dramatic change in Libya.

However, although Haftar possesses  great control and popular support among those who are against ISIS, but he may not be quite the force for stability that he claims said the FP.The Foreign Policy highlighted some weak points in Haftar’s front that could be used by the GNA to widen its power. Haftar’s camp has signs of fragmentation both politically and militarily as his supporters are less cohesive than they may at first seem.

Accordingly, the FP reported  that if the unity government wants to show that it can do a better job, it should start by creating a truly unified army.The FP considers the GNA’s recent appointment of Mahdi al-Barghathi, one of Haftar’s previous commanders, to the post of defense minister is a good step as including the troops of the Qaddafi-era army is a better idea than building a new army as they remain the best foundation for a modern and genuinely national army. A national army based on experience is better than an army based on militias as they are loyal only to themselves, not to any civilian administration, and they are correspondingly useless as a fighting force.

The FP also added that unity government should assure the population that they are the right path to stability and prosperity. The GNA was unable to extend its influence beyond relatively small areas in Tripoli and Misrata, as it has been focusing more on cultivating its international image. The GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj has spent the majority of his time abroad over the last two months to achieve international support to the GNA government but on the internal level, the GNA  lack progress toward establishing an effective administration or genuine security.

Therefore, if  the GNA wasn’t able to impose its effective presence in the transitional administrations, it would most probably lead the Libyan population to put their trust in Haftar rather than risk supporting yet another weak government that is heavy on rhetoric and light on substance,” according to the FP.

The Foreign Policy stated that the GNA should make more effort in the East to gain the support of Tobruk government,”to show that they have a genuinely national outlook.” Moreover,” GNA officials should also work harder to provide communities with services and supplies, including medicine and even generators (to cope with the endemic shortage of electricity), in order to prove that they’re better capable of providing for the beleaguered population than Haftar,”said the FP.

The phenomenon of Haftar’s popularity is a product of Libya’s post-revolutionary vacuum of leadership, “Confronting him — be it rhetorically, militarily, or with the much repeated threat of sanctions — will only reinforce his position while casting the GNA as just another faction in the country’s continuing power struggles rather than as a genuine national government.” The only solution to contain Haftar’s power is through portraying the GNA as a national government that maintains national security and  public services for the Libyan population who desperately thrive for stability. If the GNA succeeded in this, it will replace Haftar’s power and presence in Libya.