By Emily Estelle

A strategy that backs Haftar will not lead to good governance.A strategy that backs Haftar will not lead to good governance. It is a tempting shortcut that will ultimately harm American interests.

Haftar’s Victory Is a Loss for Libya and the U.S.

Khalifa Haftar’s ascension appears on the surface like a win for the U.S. Haftar is a secularist-leaning military commander who has sought U.S. support, has the endorsement of regional allies, and fights ISIS and al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, a counterterrorism partnership with Haftar is insufficient to secure U.S. interests. The current trajectory leads to several possible outcomes, none of which meet the needs of the United States.

The first likely outcome is that Haftar will struggle to achieve and maintain national power, despite the absence of a viable challenger. Elements of his fractious coalition may turn on each other when the time comes to secure their roles in a new Libyan state.

Similarly, Haftar’s overtures to Tripoli militias will count for little if these forces oust their shared enemies only to grapple with each other for control of the city. Haftar’s heretofore successful tribal negotiations will reach a limit in the west, where tribal dynamics differ significantly from the east.

While some of Haftar’s longtime opponents have signaled willingness to reconcile, others have doubled down in opposition.

Furthermore, Haftar’s takeover of Benghazi does not signal reconciliation but rather another phase in a multilayered conflict that has torn the city’s social fabric.

Tensions are already rising in the city as Haftar and his political allies fail to deliver adequate postconflict services. Continued fragmentation will produce either more war or continue the cycle of weak transitional governance, neither of which will improve regional stability nor excise Salafi-jihadi safe havens from Libya.

Another possible outcome is the expansion of the autocratic state that Haftar is building in Libya’s east, resulting in a Libya characterized by book burning, military control over civilian institutions, and the sidelining of democratically elected officials.

Haftar opposes civilian control over Libya’s military while actively pursuing his own political ambitions. Elections, if held in early 2018 as discussed, could even secure Haftar’s power through an ostensibly democratic process—but one that would lack popular legitimacy in an environment still controlled by armed actors.

Haftar’s reliance on Salafi militias and religious leadership also threatens civil freedoms and introduces a dangerous current likely to incite conflict with factions both inside and outside Haftar’s bloc.

A Haftar-led government would preserve and possibly worsen the conditions of unresponsive governance that empower the Salafi-jihadi movement. Haftar classifies all political Islamists as terrorists.

The French-brokered ceasefire allows continued counterterrorism operations and will not force Haftar to stop his quest to eradicate political Islam, which polarizes the Libyan political environment and drives moderate Islamist militias to fight for their survival by cooperating with hard-line and extremist groups.

Locally legitimate groups in the al Qaeda network are particularly well-positioned to capture support from Islamist groups and vulnerable populations that view Haftar as an existential threat. Documented abuses by LNA forces, while not unique among Libyan militias, further exacerbate grievances. Any sustainable solution to deny Salafi-jihadi groups safe haven in Libya will require communities to buy in to a political solution—not gird themselves against what they see as the rise or return of a hostile regime.

Haftar’s forces’ increasing association with senior Qaddafi regime officers and officials only heightens the perception that the old guard is rising in Haftar’s wake, a narrative that is prewritten for Salafi-jihadi recruitment and further bolstered by Haftar’s efforts to consolidate his personal power.

Haftar would also make a bad partner on a practical level. He has resisted the will of his main backer, Egypt, and has attempted to play his supporters in Moscow and Cairo against each other. His skills as a military commander are limited, as is his command and control over the LNA’s decentralized conglomerate of members and allies.

Even if Haftar were more pliable and competent, it is unreasonable to expect that he would subordinate his political interests to the objectives of the United States. Haftar, and all of Libya’s main players, seek to exert control over population centers and oil infrastructure—the components necessary to control a Libyan state.

U.S. interests in Libya go beyond this terrain, however. The country’s vast ungoverned spaces are crucial to both regional and transnational militant and criminal organizations. Haftar’s forces have neither the capability nor the will to secure Libya’s terrain, including its southern border, in a way that will be sufficient to secure the interests of the U.S. and its European allies.

U.S. support for Haftar also has potentially damaging regional implications. Egypt’s desire to exert influence over eastern Libya rings alarm bells for many Libyans and regional states, who fear an expansion of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s war on political Islam or oppose the growth of Cairo’s sphere of influence.

The ascension of an Egyptian- and Emirati-backed figure to lead Libya would also heighten regional tensions with Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan, which have also backed Libyan proxies, as well as Algeria, which seeks to challenge Egypt as a regional power broker.

Furthermore, Haftar’s cozy relationship with Moscow provides an opening for Russia, whose expansion into the southern Mediterranean would threaten American and European freedom of movement in previously uncontested waters.

Recommendations: Redefining Success in Libya

There is an alternative to Haftar, but the U.S. must change its definition of success in Libya before embarking on a new strategy. The goal must be establishing governance that is legitimate and responsive to the Libyan people—not merely the military defeat of ISIS and al Qaeda.

A narrow military victory over a Salafi-jihadi group is not enough to change the conditions that foster Salafi-jihadism in Libya. A narrow military victory over a Salafi-jihadi group is not enough to change the conditions that foster Salafi-jihadism in Libya. Neither is a fragile stability at the hands of a strongman. Haftar will be an important component of a political resolution in Libya, but he cannot be the answer.

The policy apparently under consideration by the White House addresses some key failings of the past strategy but risks encountering both preexisting and new pitfalls. Renewed diplomatic engagement, as proposed in the new plan, is necessary should the U.S. seek to help broker a sustainable solution to the Libya conflict, a requirement for changing conditions that currently favor ISIS and al Qaeda. Attention paid to ameliorating the migrant crisis is also valuable.

The proposed strategy also carries major risks, however. It reportedly seeks to replicate the Somalia counterterrorism model, a plan that is worrisome both because U.S. policy in Somalia has not been successful and because Libya is not Somalia.

The most concerning aspect of the proposed policy is a move to initiate a counterterrorism partnership with Haftar, a short-term decision that would cause long-term damage to Libya and U.S. interests there.

The U.S. has an opportunity to set Libya on a new course before Haftar and his external backers solidify their partial hold on the country. A new U.S. strategy must prioritize supporting the establishment of governance that is responsive and legitimate to the Libyan people.

  • Support the UN Process. The U.S. should reaffirm its support for the UN process and act in concert with the new head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, as well as European partners, to foster inclusive negotiations under the UN’s auspices. This will require pressure on Egypt and the UAE to end their military support for Haftar and commit to the UN process.

  • Engage Haftar, with Conditions. The U.S. should engage Haftar with the dual goal of encouraging his participation in the UN framework and securing his adherence to key conditions, including civilian control over governing bodies and the military. Haftar must be a part of a solution to the Libyan crisis—but not as an autocrat, even if he secures power through a nominally democratic process.

  • Train Security Forces. The U.S. and European allies should support the formation and training of professional security forces. The LNA cannot be the only starting point. The GNA’s nascent Presidential Guard and elements of the al Bunyan al Marsous coalition are also good candidates. Security forces must be vetted for past abuses and any connections to Salafi-jihadi groups. Training should focus on capacity building to fight militant groups and professionalization to prevent security forces from causing or exacerbating communal grievances.

  • Work with Subnational Actors. Increased diplomatic engagement must address not only the national level but also municipal and regional structures that are best positioned to deliver the governance that will weaken Salafi-jihadi groups. Possible types of engagement include capacity building and aid to support Libya’s failing health care system, capacity building in the financial and banking sector, and training for local officials to support service delivery and communication with the public.

This engagement will also give the U.S. visibility on the local dynamics that drive the Libyan conflict, including the smuggling and trafficking networks that enliven militias and terrorist groups.

The administration’s interest in Libya is well-placed. The U.S. must look beyond Haftar to develop a comprehensive strategy that will bring the greatest return on investment—a stable Libya that breaks the cycle of continuous intervention.


Emily Estelle – is an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. Her research focuses on al Qaeda affiliates and associated movements in the Gulf of Aden and western and northern Africa.


Related Articles