Defeat of the Death Star: Surrender and captivity

The Washington Post, along with The Wall Street Journal, had been tricked by the White House into publishing false reports about Qaddafi ramping up terrorist activities.

In the mid-1980s Haftar was an untested but loyal officer, admired by Qaddafi partly because he looked and acted the part of a hard-drinking, aggressive, handsome officer. But could Haftar play the part? Qaddafi still trusted his inner circle of senior officers, but in 1987 he moved Haftar from the source of the country’s oil wealth to a remote desert fortress in northern Chad.

President Reagan had embraced clandestine operations early in his administration, using presidential findings to authorize covert operations against Soviet-related nations. The first operation had been to install Chadian President Hissène Habré in 1981 in order to harass Qaddafi on his southern flank.

On Aug. 14, 1986, Reagan approved a clandestine plan prepared by National Security Advisor John M. Poindexter to fund deception programs intended to make Qaddafi think there was a high degree of internal opposition to him, his key trusted aides were disloyal and the U.S. was about to move against him militarily.

Poindexter’s three-page memo, which was leaked to Bob Woodward at The Washington Post, outlined how the U.S. would portray Qaddafi as paranoid and, at the same time, stir up discontent using real and illusionary events, which, of course, would make Qaddafi justifiably paranoid.

Americans were fooled first. The Washington Post, along with The Wall Street Journal, had been tricked by the White House into publishing false reports about Qaddafi ramping up terrorist activities when, in fact, the CIA had determined he was abandoning those tactics.

The 1980s were not kind to Libya. Oil prices had plummeted, other nations infiltrated and attacked the government and the war in Chad was going sideways as France, Israel and the U.S. chose to support a new leader, Hissène Habré.

On June 7, 1982, Habré’s CIA-backed forces rolled into N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, and took control of the government. The next task for the new regime was to oust the Libyans from the north. Declassified CIA documents from December 1982 show that reduced oil income had made Qaddafi hesitant to ramp up operations there.

Reagan spent $10 million bolstering the fight against Qaddafi-supported opponents of Habré in the north. The secret Chad operation was Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North’s first covert operation at the National Security Council; his Operations SubGroup coordinated with Director of Central Intelligence William Casey.

Tim Wiener’s book, “Legacy of Ashes,” documents this period, during which the U.S. spent a half-billion dollars on a nation most Americans had never heard of. North quickly showed enthusiasm for overcoming bureaucratic hurdles. When told lawmakers were being slow to support his operation, North’s response was, “Fuck the Congress. Send the stuff now.”

North had even proposed using the new secret Stealth bomber to assassinate Qaddafi in support of a 1984 attempt by an opposition group called the National Front for the Salvation of Libya to attack the Bab al-Azizia military barracks and compound in Tripoli, Qaddafi’s main base of operations.

A joint Pentagon-CIA operation led by Chester Crocker, James Bishop and Charlie Duelfer provided covert military aid to supply weapons to the Chadians to fight Libya.

Not just RPGs and assault rifles, but two dozen Toyota pickup trucks mounted with 105mm recoilless rifles and 12.7mm machine guns, along with Stingers and Redeye antiaircraft missiles and the trainers and operators needed to coordinate with AWACS surveillance planes, F-15s and 600 U.S. support personnel.

The CIA’s increased assistance to Chad during Habré’s rise sparked Qaddafi’s aggressive insertion of 7,000 soldiers into northern Chad. In 1986 Qaddafi said in a speech to the graduating class of a military college that he must push back against French and American aggression. “The Chadian populations must be rescued from annihilation.”

Flush with weapons to fight Qaddafi, Chadian groups now swarmed over the scorching Sahara desert with their Toyotas, new surface-to-air weapons and tons of ammunition, all backed by French air power and U.S. intelligence. Their target was to dislodge the Libyan and mercenary forces dug into massively fortified bases on their northern border. The most prominent was the main supply base, Wadi Doum.

Haftar was an old-school, Soviet-style ground commander who had continued to build up the Wadi Doum airstrip with fields of armor, textbook artillery and SA-6 antiaircraft batteries, massive air assets and fortifications ringed by land mines. In a desert region where Arabs had always fought using lightning strikes, the fixed position was to be his downfall.

Mohamed Buisir, who is now a petroleum engineer in Dallas, was a political adviser to Haftar. He recalls the story of Wadi Doum. “Haftar split his force into three groups. The first unit was sent out to fight the Chadians, and [they] were defeated. The second group was sent down the same route and was also defeated. He sent the third, and the Chadians followed them back to his base.”

This account matches others. Haftar consistently sent columns out to probe the much lighter but faster armed Toyotas and was punished every time. Finally, the Chadians followed a retreating Libyan column past the land mines and into what some journalists called the Death Star.

Qaddafi tried to run the war from far away. He had spent two decades building up his elaborate defenses to secure the region. To shore up his own troops, he brought in Sudanese fighters at $500 per month and Lebanese Druze mercenaries at $2,500 per month.

Qaddafi ordered Haftar to send a column to attack rebels at Fada, and on March 19, this column was quickly annihilated 30 miles southeast of Wadi Doum at a pass called Bir Kora. A second relief column was also wiped out 12 miles from the base.

Haftar’s men knew the Chadians were coming but didn’t fire at an approaching column, thinking it was their own men returning. It was, but the Chadians were in hot pursuit.

On March 22, 2,500 Chadian soldiers launched a predawn assault on Wadi Doum. Haftar was confident that the minefields and armor would deter any attackers. The French and U.S. had it in for Haftar. They provided the Chadians with intelligence and radio intercepts; French air strikes took out Haftar’s radar.

Chadian tribals had perfected the “ghazw,” or hit-and-run camel-mounted raid, except this time the assault relied on 400 Toyota pickup trucks. Chadian Toyotas fitted with Milan antitank weapons attacked Haftar’s T-55 tanks from opposing sides, confusing the Libyans as they tried to swing their turrets around to return fire.

Chadians surrounded the air base, delivering devastating causalities. Terrified Libyans tried to escape through their own minefields with lethal consequences.

After four hours of fighting outside the base, the Libyans surrendered, leaving the airfield and underground bunkers intact. In all, 3,000 Libyans surrendered. There were an estimated 11,000 Libyan soldiers in the region in March 1987.

Five days later, Chadians had taken back northern Chad. Most of the Libyan troops and foreign fighters managed to retreat into Libya. Of the 3,000 men in Wadi Doum who surrendered, more than half escaped, leaving Haftar and 1,269 soldiers as prisoners.

How did Haftar lose so completely when he had so many resources at his disposal?

Those who were there insist that Haftar was drunk with his local girlfriend and quickly surrendered. Unlike many myths about Haftar, this one seemed to fit. When a New York Times reporter asked a Chadian officer at Wadi Doum whether their “Toyota War” tactics would be effective against a first-rate army, he said he did not know. “We weren’t fighting a first-rate army.”

One Chadian government official gloated over the victory. “Col. Qaddafi has suffered a strategic defeat that has destroyed both the credibility and effectiveness of the Libyan Army.” It is estimated that by the time Chad and Libya negotiated a ceasefire on Sept. 11, 1987, Qaddafi had lost $1.5 billion in military equipment, 7,500 dead and 2,000 captured — a tenth of his entire military.

Continues in part 3


Related Articles