By: Ethan Chorin
Khalifa Heftar, dubbed Libya’s ‘rogue’ general for his refusal to support a series of shaky, Islamist-weighted governments, has made potentially game-changing news this week by re-asserting control over Libya’s Eastern export terminals.
For more than two years these facilities have been held by the volatile militia leader Ibrahim Jathran, who has sold his loyalties to all sides. General Heftar’s action follows on months of progress made by the Libyan National Army, which he commands, to push the Islamic State and other extremist groups back from Benghazi and several other strategic towns in the East.
Rather than welcoming Heftar’s progress, the United States, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Spain signed a joint communiqué this week expressing their strong displeasure.
These Western countries have put all of their visible efforts into a highly flawed U.N.-engineered Government of National Accord, which for many months has sagged under the weight of an unworkably complex structure, ad hoc decision-making and a lack of strong popular support.
From the international community’s perspective, the advantages of the Government of National Accord may have been its support for air strikes against the Islamic State and so far ineffective actions to stem the flow of migrants to Europe’s shores — without requiring major expenditure to correct the mistakes that were made after the 2011 intervention that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi.
The latter have been under scrutiny this week as part of a politicized U.K. parliamentary inquiry, which called the Government of National Accord the “only game in town.” Heftar has just demonstrated that this is not the case.
For all the Western fears of a Heftar-led coup, the General has done what the West and the Government of National Accord have decidedly not been able to do: over two years, he has systematically pieced together a robust and officered fighting force, and in turn successfully pushed extremist groups out of strongholds in the East. And he has done so with modest external support, at best.
Extremists have decried Heftar’s blunt fighting techniques, which they say amount to razing full city blocks in pursuit of handfuls of jihadists. But the population of the East still overwhelmingly supports Heftar because he has produced results.
Benghazi, which has been under Islamist siege since a year after the Revolution, has been ravaged, but is now largely secured.
Many of those Libyan politicians and exiles who had been supporting the Government of National Accord because they believed it was the best of bad options, now applaud Heftar’s recent moves as breaking the long stalemate that has torn Libya apart.
From his announcement of the creation of a national movement (Karama, or “dignity”) in 2014, there were concerns that Heftar might become a new regional strongman. I flagged this as a possibility in 2014, back when Libya still had a weak, but popularly-elected government. But I also pointed out that Heftar could not easily be ignored, and that given the U.S.’ past relationship with him, including well reported ties with the C.I.A., it behooved the U.S. to clarify its position, or at least its expectations of him.
General Heftar’s reasons for opposing the Government of National Accord are not as unreasonable as they have been cast: by the terms of the Libyan Political Agreement, the Government of National Accord came into effect once it was ratified by the House of Representatives, which would serve as its legislative arm. But the House of Representatives has twice voted against it.
Given this, Heftar sees himself answering to the House of Representatives. He has also expressed strong objections to provisions of the Libyan Political Agreement which he sees as aimed specifically at removing him from his position, and attenuating the Libyan National Army, in favor of a collection of undisciplined militias.
The Government of National Accord’s claim to legitimacy comes principally from a highly political decision earlier this year by several Western governments to transfer support to it from the House of Representatives.
It is beholden to recalcitrant Tripoli-based militias, with uneasy connections to Islamist groups. Yet despite its expired mandate, and other shortcomings, the House of Representatives remains the most direct heir to a series of popularly-sanctioned governments in the wake of the 2011 Revolution. That legitimacy is a precious commodity.
Now, Heftar’s reclamation of the oil fields has created the outlines of a path forward for Libya. By reasserting control of Libya’s ‘oil crescent’ and sidelining Jathran’s extortion racket, Heftar has underscored the relevance of the Libyan National Army and the House of Representatives, while at the same time highlighting the shortsightedness of international attempts to prop up the Government of National Unity and negotiate with Jathran.
Heftar has promised to work with the National Oil Company to get the oil flowing again, and it looks like this is happening swiftly.
Oil remains the currency with which Libya can recover from its recent trauma. But the country’s long-term stability requires that those resources be removed from contention, somewhat in the manner that Norway’s government agreed in early days of exploration to keep politics out of oil-wealth investment decisions. As long as Libyans fear that terms like ‘decentralization’ and ‘federalism’ equates to permanent division or an unequal division of revenues, the conflict will continue.
In the near term, Libya needs what it needed in the wake of the 2011 NATO intervention: a lean, technocratic caretaker government, paired with decentralized regional administration and a strong and effective army capable of establishing order and disbanding and disarming militias. The country needs a comprehensive international assistance package, supported by strong incentives for private sector investment and local capacity-building.
There is a strong argument for lifting the U.N. arms embargo, with stringent conditions and oversight as to how those arms are used, and who controls them. Regions and individuals that cooperate in helping establish local institutions and secure areas should be rewarded, those that thwart national development efforts should have meaningful sanctions imposed upon them.
Of course all of this requires a very sharp shift in thinking by the West and by many Libyans: a broad recognition that, despite the effort that went into it, the Government of National Unity is a dead end; that Libya needs a fresh start and a governing body that preserves the popular sanction that began with the popular revolt in 2011; that progress requires the international community to become a hands-on partner in economic development; that the U.N.’s best contribution lies not in imposing its vision of government, but in keeping outside individuals and states from interfering with the reconciliation and reconstruction process; and that the West has long-accumulating moral obligations to Libya, stemming from more than a decade of social engineering and the botched 2011 intervention, which are best repaid by investing heavily in Libya’s future.