The Quandary of Gen. Hiftar

The new danger in Benghazi

A former Libyan general with American connections may be a savior, or a strongman in waiting. Either way, The U.S. cannot remain silent about him.

By Ethan Chorin

NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Forget the endless obsession with assigning blame for the attack in 2012 on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi. The United States has another crisis on its hands right now in Libya. Khalifa Hiftar, a former Libyan general who is now an American citizen, is mounting what could be de facto coup, or a decisive blow to Islamists, with far reaching consequences for Libya and the United States.

That is where our government’s attention should be.

Mr. Hiftar led former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s disastrous war with Chad in the late 1980s. He was captured by enemy forces, and our government struck a deal with Chad for his release and transfer to the U.S. While researching a book on the origins of the 2011 Libyan Revolution, I uncovered traces of a long relationship between Mr. Hiftar, the United States and the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the main exile group opposing Qaddafi at the time. These included assertions that the C.I.A. recruited Mr. Hiftar to help prepare military activity against the dictator. Mr. Hiftar settled in Virginia and, according to Abdurahman Shalgham, Gaddafi’s Ex-Foreign Minister, was put in charge of training like-minded Libyans as prospective insurgents. But those preparations never bore fruit; instead, in the late 1990’s, the United States pursued  accommodation with Qaddafi. When the 2011 rebellion broke out and NATO intervened, Mr. Hiftar returned to Libya expecting to command the rebel forces, but lost out to Abdul Fattah Younes, Qaddafi’s former interior minister. Younes was later assassinated, with suspicion falling on an Islamist militia then emerging in Benghazi.

This month, Mr. Hiftar re-emerged as the leader of an increasingly popular assault on Libya’s Islamists, backed by jet fighters and artillery; simultaneously, his partisans in the capital of Tripoli terminated a session of the Parliament, the General National Congress (GNC) and say they’ll thwart any attempts to reconvene. Hiftar claims to have been planning this maneuver for months, if not the least two years, by shuttling among Libyan military figures in Libya’s major cities — a scenario reminiscent of Qaddafi’s preparations for his own 1969 coup.

Mr. Hiftar calls his program Operation Karama — Arabic for “dignity.” In interviews with the Arabic press, he styles himself a fierce patriot with a civic duty to deliver Libyans from the Muslim Brotherhood. He speaks of “cleansing” Libya of Islamists, especially in Benghazi, where he blames them for daily assassinations and kidnappings. He has not stated an end-goal, but has said he would not refuse a leadership role — if the people should will it. He rules out compromising with Islamists, who, he says, only respond to force.

In the last week, Mr. Hiftar has gained backing from key Libyan army and air force units, important militias and senior members of the regional security forces, as well as increasingly strong endorsements from some of the most visible leaders of the 2011 revolution.

Indeed, Mr. Hiftar’s resurrection has acquired an almost ‘redemptive’ quality. In Washington, some policy experts and State Department officials quietly express satisfaction that someone is going after Ansar al-Sharia, the militia blamed for the attack on the United States compound.  And a sizeable number of Libyans hope Mr. Hiftar can reverse the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on Parliament, which they consider a hijacking of democracy as egregious as any external coup.

Some in Libya have called for the immediate handover of all legislative power over to the elected 60-member Constitutional Assembly, which enjoys wide legitimacy. This is necessary, they say, because the main goal of the Islamist -controlled Parliament is to control the constitution-drafting process, and make sure that their views are reflected in the final document.   Further, they say, there is no way that Libya will be even remotely prepared for new elections the 25th.  The security situation alone, will vastly curtail the number of people who will participate in the voting, thus playing into the Islamists’ hands.

The problem here, of course, is that the GNC itself is the only body that is legally authorized to diminish its own powers, and the controlling Muslim Brotherhood and Al Wafaa blocs can be counted upon to oppose such a decision.  One hope has been that the GNC will dissolve by itself, as internal fissures grow, and more members boycott the sessions.

Meanwhile, large, pro-Karama demonstrations in Libya’s major cities have given Mr. Hiftar what he says is a mandate to proceed.  Over the weekend, however, Hiftar’s campaign seems to have faltered  – and this could be just as unfortunate for Libya’s future as any unilateral assumption of power by Mr. Hifter.

In all of this, the United States government has not expressed a judgment. It seems to be avoiding endorsement or rejection of Mr. Hiftar, limiting itself to expressions of concern about a situation it calls “extremely fluid” and joining an international call for all parties to refrain from violent acts. Secretary of State John Kerry has asked a senior diplomat, David Satterfield, to go to Libya as an envoy, but has not indicated a direct connection with Mr. Hifter’s action.  At a press briefing last Thursday, the State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki sidestepped discussion of Mr. Hiftar, but underscored American support for Libya’s people, its democratic process, and the GNC’s response to the current “situation,” which at that point amounted to announcing a date for parliamentary elections — June 25.

Such anodyne evasions are dangerous. If the Mr. Hifter’s succeeds in his first stated goal of fighting terrorism, he could help level the political playing field in Libya, or generate a long period with no elections whatsoever.  If he fails, this may strengthen the views of others, who see in the United States’ actions a plan to seek accommodation with “moderate” Islamists.

Since Hiftar is largely a U.S. creation, we need to be clear about what we think of him, or risk being tarnished with the outcome, whether positive or negative.

Do we still have a relationship with Hiftar?  Do we sympathize with all of his spoken intentions, or with only some — for example, reclaiming Benghazi from extremists? What kind of behavior will we hold him to, as an American citizen bearing arms abroad, and as a potential leader of Libya? Certainly, if he were to overturn all of Libya’s democratic gains, he would be acting against stated United States policy.

More than once, the U.S. has gotten into trouble in Libya by not taking clear positions. During the 2003 rapprochement, we told Qaddafi we had conditions for reconciling with him. Then we didn’t enforce them. The fact that Mr. Hiftar is now hunting Islamists, rather than Qaddafi loyalists, is a direct consequence of the West’s failure in 2011 to plan for security or reconstruction after Qaddafi’s ouster. Good planning might have prevented Benghazi from falling into the wrong hands to begin with. In an interview in the early spring of 2012, J. Christopher Stevens, who was then ambassador-designate, conveyed to me his deep fears regarding this very outcome. Ironically, Benghazi did not fall to Islamists and criminal elements until after the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, which took the lives of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. Benghazi has since become the northern anchor of an arc of instability that extends into sub-Saharan Africa.

But it is never too late to learn a lesson. Whatever his flaws, Mr. Hiftar has some good and timely qualities. With the United States unwilling to intervene directly in Libya, and the Libyan government compromised by Islamist sympathizers within, he may be the only person able and willing to lead a successful fight against Libyan extremists.

That said, Libya’s nascent democratic institutions must survive.

To pursue both goals, the United States needs to delineate which of  Hiftar’s  stated objectives it believes are legitimate, where it thinks s the limits to Mr. Hiftar’s action and ambition should lie, as well as the consequences if he and his supporters stray from them.  If it gets this balance right, the United States may yet help preserve a fragile democracy, stymie an Islamist takeover of Libya, and tame a dictator — before he becomes one.