Trump’s Bet on Libyan Strongman Will Backfire

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- An American citizen leading a North African militia that is implicated in war crimes should be receiving a visit from U.S. law enforcement officials. Instead, Khalifa Haftar, the septuagenarian warlord seeking power in Libya, got a call from the U.S. president. Unfortunately, Trump’s enthusiasm for Haftar is unlikely to be rewarded with the results he seeks.

According to the White House readout, Trump and Haftar “discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.” U.S. officials have since told Bloomberg News that the president went much farther, supporting Haftar’s assault on Tripoli to depose the Libyan government backed by the United Nations.

In a previous call, Haftar’s ambitions also received an endorsement from National Security Adviser John Bolton.

The encouragement from the White House undermines the stern warnings Haftar has received from the State Department. Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that “we have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital.” The U.S. charge d’affairs in Libya, Peter Bodde, had also warned Haftar against advancing on Tripoli.

No guesses needed as to which contradictory message Haftar will heed. He wants to rule Libya, having attempted a coup in Tripoli five years ago. When that failed, he reinvented himself as a militia commander dedicated to fighting Islamists. His so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) attacked and reclaimed Benghazi from Islamist militants, after bombing parts of the eastern coastal city into rubble.

Somewhere along the way, the major-general promoted himself to “field marshal.”

Since then, Haftar’s LNA has taken much of eastern and southern Libya, backed by France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. His advance on the western cities of Tripoli and Misrata was the logical conclusion to his campaign, but it nonetheless took his backers by surprise. It all but doomed UN-backed peace negotiations among the country’s warring factions.

The warlord has been cautious since his army arrived on the capital’s outskirts, making only forays into the city, and bombing the airport. One reason: taking Tripoli and Misrata will require much more force — and blood — than Benghazi. Haftar’s approach has united local militias, which are battle-tested from the civil war that ousted his onetime boss, the dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The UN-backed government also has the support of Turkey and Qatar.

Another possible explanation for Haftar’s hesitation is the international condemnation of his power grab: The United Nations and the European Union have demanded that he back down.

If the phone call from Trump helps Haftar overcome any qualms, Libya is headed for a new civil war even bloodier than the 2011 version. Quite apart from the enormous human cost this could entail, it would likely send oil prices soaring.

It is unclear why the U.S. president made the call. Trump has a well-documented crush for strongmen, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Haftar, who models himself after Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, fits the mold.

Trump and Bolton may have persuaded themselves, as French President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian have done, that Haftar is the best man to ensure Islamist militants don’t put down roots in Libya. But scrutiny of Haftar — and the history of military strongmen in the Arab world — suggest that such optimism is misplaced.

The warlord has fought against some Islamists, but has others on his side. His forces include contingent of Madkhalis, members of an ultraconservative movement originating in Saudi Arabia. Haftar has reportedly allowed them to take over mosques in areas that have fallen under his control.

One of his commanders is the subject of an arrest warrant, for alleged war crimes, from the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Human-rights lawyers have accused the commander of the torture and execution of prisoners. As a U.S. citizen (starting in 1987, he spent two decades living in exile outside Washington) Haftar himself is vulnerable to legal proceedings in American courts.

Even if he does win the civil war — and that outcome is by no means certain — Haftar is not likely to be beholden to the U.S. His other backers have provided much more than encouraging words on the phone: money, arms and military advisers. They will have greater claim on his goodwill than a Trump administration with apparently divided priorities.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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