Interviewed by Ahmed Ibrahim Amer
Al-Ahram Al-Arabi weekly magazine sat down with veteran Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar,
the most powerful figure in eastern Libya, to talk about the military scene in the North African country and the challenges facing the Libyan Army.
Haftar has called for elections to be held and said the military leadership will only back an elected civilian authority. The commander also pledged to retake the eastern city of Derna from extremists soon, and affirmed that the military has zero tolerance for corruption.
The text of the interview follows:
Q: Were the rumors about your poor health fueled by Libyan intelligence to try and achieve certain strategic goals, or was it a media campaign designed to stabilize the Libyan military? And why didn’t you make any public appearances to quash the rumors that continued to circulate for ten days?
A: We do not respond to everything the media reports. We know that citizens handle such rumors with ridicule and contempt and we rely on people’s confidence in the credibility of what we say. So we knew that one statement from the official spokesman of the armed forces was enough to reassure citizens — civilians and military — and to refute any lies promoted by hostile media outlets. Those lies were aimed to drive a wedge between army ranks and create chaos within the army, but this has not happened. The army remains cohesive and invulnerable. It doesn’t have loyalty to any individual, but rather to God, the nation and the people.
Q: How did these rumors affect the political scene in Libya and did any political parties aim to take advantage of the situation?
A: This never happened. I have been in constant contact with international and local parties to discuss everything with regards to Libya, and things were perfectly normal.
Q: During that time, Libya’s parliamentary speaker held a number of talks, including one with the High Council of State in Morocco. How do you evaluate that meeting?
A: We were not involved in that meeting and we have no information about it, neither in terms of arrangements nor in terms of its objectives or outcomes. We do not interfere with the activities of the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Q: You announced that the Libyan National Army controls 95 percent of the country. Is this a sign that the army is about to assume control of the entire state, or are there external obstacles that would make this goal impossible to realize?
A: The Libyan National Army will continue its struggle until it regains full control over Libya, no matter what this costs. We will preserve the unity of the country and the sovereignty of the state. We will do our utmost to achieve stability and security so that the Libyans can build their state in the way they want and with their free will.
This army, which has achieved miracles in defeating terrorism, is the hope of all Libyans, and is the guarantee to build the state and achieve the aspirations of the people. The scope of its sovereignty will continue expand to include the full Libyan soil.
Q: When you launched Operation Al-Karama (dignity) in mid-April 2014 with fewer than 300 personnel – soldiers, officers and civilians – military experts doubted your chances of success. However you achieved a military miracle. How do you assess the army’s stance regarding armament and numbers now?
A: The Libyan Army overcame very difficult situations in a very short period to become the ninth-strongest armed force on the African continent, and all this was achieved despite the arms embargo implemented at a time when the Libyan Army is waging a war on terrorism on behalf of the world.
The Libyan National Army is currently undergoing development and we are determined to rebuild it in accordance with the latest modern standards to preserve the state’s sovereignty and the people’s interests.
Q: What are the latest developments in the war against terrorist organizations and the operation to liberate Derna?
A: We initially launched Benghazi’s liberation operation with 300 fighters against 15,000 terrorists who controlled the city and received unlimited support from abroad. Now I am sure that we will succeed in eliminating hundreds of terrorists in Derna very soon, after three years of siege.
Q: We congratulate you on the fourth anniversary of the Operation Dignity revolution. Speaking of the latest military parade on the occasion, what messages did it convey and to whom?
A: Basically, the message was directed to the Libyan people to ensure them that they have a strong armed forces, capable of defending the nation and fighting terrorism.
The second message was clear to the terrorists: defeat in Libya is your fate and you have no place in our country.
The third and last message was for the military men who lost hope and abandoned the army, so that they reconsider and rejoin the Libyan Army immediately.
Q: From time to time, the Mitiga International Airport in the capital, Tripoli, witnesses clashes between two military forces affiliated with the Presidential Council, which have resulted in the destruction of the Libyan aviation fleet. How long will these clashes continue to damage and destroy Libya’s infrastructure?
A: These clashes will end after annulling all military factions that are acting outside of the framework of the Libyan army and police, and when they surrender their arms.
The issue of Tripoli and its security situation continues to haunt Libyans and the international community.
Local, regional and international coordination is ongoing to deal with the situation in the capital, in addition to the ongoing negotiations in Cairo on the unification of the Libyan military institution. The situation in Tripoli will not last long.
Q: Western reports mention large numbers of Daesh fighters from Iraq and Syria settling in Libya, did your intelligence agencies confirm such reports?
A: Terrorists are coming into Libya from almost every corner around the world, mainly from neighboring countries and some African and European states.
Our rifles and planes are ready to counter them regardless of their nationalities. They come to our country with threats of beheading and booby-trapped vehicles, and we will continue to target and pursue them. Their fate is to end with being either killed or captured. There is no way out.
Q: In an interview with Al-Ahram Al-Arabi two years ago, you affirmed that the Libyan Army must stay away from politics. What changed your views now on the participation of the army’s general command in the political process?
A: We didn’t intend to be involved in politics but politics surrounded us and tried to force unacceptable situations on military institutions.We could not leave the fate of the military institution in the hands of politicians, for them to decide its destiny without taking into consideration its history and its great sacrifices.
We had no other option other than to face conspirators against the army and those who were attempting to establish alternative forces acting upon orders from non-elected authorities. Our aim in entering politics was to clarify our firm stance against any attempt to harm our armed forces.
Q: During your speech on 17 December, the end-date of the Skhirat Agreement, you announced that the Libyan Army will not follow any non-elected authority. Did you mean the Presidential Council and the accord government or the Parliament as well?
A: The Libyan parliament is an institution elected by the Libyan people before the so-called political agreement was inked. It is the sole legitimate representative of the will of the Libyan people.
We are well aware of the challenges and pressures facing parliament but we ensure it will remain the sole legislative institution in the country, and will exercise its powers according to the constitutional declaration.
Q: You also spoke in your speech about international and regional pressures on the general command of the Libyan Army, can you explain what kind of pressure were you talking about and why it was practiced?
A: I did not point to any country; however, there is an international tendency to pressure the military authority to be subject to the executive authority emerging from the political agreement.
We adamantly oppose any such tendency, because it is against the interest of the military institution and would be dangerous as well, no matter how hard the pressures are.
Q: Would the army accept the participation of groups that you denominated as “terrorists” in the coming elections, such as the Muslim Brotherhood?
A: What regulates the elections is the elections law, which defines their conditions and requirements. Parliament is the only entity in charge of this law.
If the law under any condition allows these groups to run, then it is up to the Libyan people to vote or not to vote for them, however I don’t think that the Libyans, after all what they have been through, will make the same mistake twice.
Q: You had a very tense relationship with Martin Kobler, the former UN envoy to Libya, now how do you describe your relationship with Ghassan Salamé?
A: At the beginning of their mission all international envoys to Libya thought that all they needed to accomplish their goal was hold some meetings with figures whom they considered key players.
The goal was to draw a picture of the crisis and then [produce] a road map endorsed by the Security Council to be implemented immediately. But soon they all realized that the crisis is not that simple.
It is a vicious struggle over power and the country’s wealth. It is a fight by those who want to escape justice and punishment for the crimes they have committed against the Libyan people, those who know that any fair settlement will put them in prison or cost them their lives.
A real settlement will simply mean the end of these people and that is why they are standing against it. Any international envoy who does not realize this dilemma will become another name in a long list of diplomats who failed to achieve anything in Libya.