By Matthew Herbert
The general’s global supporters shouldn’t just focus on whether he can win, but what victory would mean.
War has raged in western Libya since 4 April 2019. On one side is the Government of National Accord (GNA), Libya’s main internationally recognised government.
It is heavily dependent on armed groups for the defence of Tripoli, and increasingly reliant on Turkey, which has provided military equipment, trainers and advisers, and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.
Opposing the GNA is General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) – an alliance of armed groups and foreign mercenaries from Russia, Sudan and Chad.
Foreign actors, primarily the United Arab Emirates, have supported the LNA militarily, via direct action, training and equipment, and by providing diplomatic backing and cover.
In 11 months of clashes, the death of around 6 000 fighters and hundreds of civilians, and the displacement of 140 000 Libyans, Haftar’s LNA has slowly gained territory in western Libya.
Turkey’s growing intervention has stalled this advance, and lessened, though not eliminated, the prospect of a military victory for Haftar.
Haftar, however, retains significant international support in his aim to take over Libya. He has effectively marketed himself, and the LNA, as essential for international actors focused on countering crime, terrorism, instability, and, for the UAE, actors linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Significant debate has revolved around whether Haftar can win. What happens if he does, and what type of state Libya might look like under him, have been less explored.
Despite the strongman imagery and the public rhetoric around creating a centralised Libyan state, there is reason to be cautious in assuming that a Haftar victory would lead to this. Numerous factors suggest that a Haftar-dominated Libya would remain weakened, chaotic and violent.
This is partly due to the strategy Haftar has pursued for bringing most of Libya under his banner.
Apart from the violent conflict raging in Tripoli, and previous grinding battles in Benghazi and Derna, he’s extended his geographic reach in Libya by gaining the support of tribes, and inducing the defection of local armed groups.
This has been accomplished partly by negotiation, gifts and a focus on combating those construed as mutual enemies. Haftar has appealed to tribes linked to the former regime by promising vengeance and an end to political exclusion.
Effectively, he has either explicitly or tacitly promised these groups a significant stake in how his Libya will be governed.
However the relationship between Haftar and the tribes associated with his coalition is conditional, predicated on his delivery once in power on expectations and promises.
His ability to fully do so seems unlikely, given the sheer number of actors he has engaged with, the limited number of high-profile government positions he can dole out, and the reality that Libya’s economic resources are not limitless.
Haftar’s strategy has also meant that the LNA is more a fractious coalition of groups – all armed and all of which have differing goals and priorities – than a unitary national force.
In Libya’s east, where Haftar’s power is most entrenched, he has struggled to control armed groups nominally under LNA command, which have been implicated in serious human rights abuses.
There seems little reason to believe that a victorious Haftar would be able to rein in the autonomy of tribes and armed groups throughout the rest of the country, and he’d probably struggle to get many to surrender their weapons.
So there’s reason to doubt claims that Haftar’s Libya would be strong, and every reason to worry that it would emerge as only a weakly functional state.
This state weakness and a continuation of violence would probably be further driven by GNA supporters, especially by Islamist armed groups and those who risk losing the gains they’ve made since the 2011 revolution.
Haftar’s formal defeat of the GNA would probably not end resistance to his rule. Rather opposition would go underground.
The LNA’s history of war crimes and human rights abuses in eastern Libya suggest that such opposition would be met with brutal violence, including extrajudicial arrests, executions and torture.
A Haftar victory could birth an even worse bloodbath than the current conflict.
Would Haftar’s Libya be able to appreciably rein in criminal activity in western Libya?
However, nine years of conflict and disorder in Libya have changed the status quo and society in ways that would challenge the emergence of a Libyan state predicated on extreme violence.
Many Libyans have military experience, and arms are prevalent throughout the western cities. Abusive behaviour would probably fuel, rather than reduce, active opposition to Haftar’s rule.
The risk of a weakened, fractious and violent state is three-fold.
First, it is inherently unstable, raising the possibility that Haftar’s rule, or that of any successor, could be brief.
Second, the likelihood of significant rule-of-law gaps, abusive behaviour by security forces and economic appropriation by Haftar’s forces would almost undoubtedly fuel escalating grievances.
Without licit opposition outlets, frustrations could fuel terrorist radicalisation and recruitment. This coupled with a weak state, which could aid extremist groups in organising and staging operations, threatens to worsen Libya’s terrorist problem.
There is evidence that this is already happening in southern Libya, a zone under Haftar’s control.
Finally, criminality could remain robust in a post-GNA state. Already the eastern city of Tobruk, nominally under Haftar’s control, is an important point for drug trafficking throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Armed groups under Haftar’s banner are deeply involved in crime.
There is little reason to believe that Haftar’s Libya would be able to appreciably rein in criminal activity in western Libya. Rather, control of illicit markets would simply switch hands from GNA-aligned groups to those operating under the LNA banner.
Assessing what a future Haftar-dominated Libya would be like is speculative. However, structural dynamics suggest that such a state would bear limited resemblance either to the claims made by Haftar, or the expectation of his international backers.
International actors shouldn’t spend time assessing only whether Haftar can win, but what kind of situation that victory could lead to.
Dr Matthew Herbert, Senior Research Consultant, ISS and Senior Analyst, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. He is a specialist in fragility and stabilization, with a focus on security sector reform and governance, border security, transnational organized crime, and irregular migration.