The CIA’s Desert Ghost: Haftar agrees to turn against Qaddafi
Reacting to horror scenes of the Libyan defeat at Wadi Doum, Qaddafi dismissed the impact of the disaster, refusing to discuss his captured troops with the media.
It took three weeks for journalists to reach the remote desert battlefield in northern Chad, arriving on April 11, 1987. The shocking photos and news footage was worth it: 200 parked armored vehicles, 14 helicopters, 20 fighter aircraft, tons of supplies and, gruesomely, the desiccated corpses of hundreds of Libyans, many of whom had been blown up by land mines as they fled in trucks.
The New York Times sent former Lt. Col. Bernard Trainor to survey the scene. “The Libyan troops’ apparent inefficiency, ineptness and, in the end, panic led to their total defeat,” he wrote, “confirming the contempt that the Chadians say they had for them as soldiers.”
The CIA accurately predicted Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s response to the rout at the Wadi Doum air base. “We believe [Qaddafi] will try unsuccessfully to deflect blame by finding military scapegoats for the defeat,” said one analyst, “and exaggerating French and U.S. support to the Chadian forces.”
Reacting to the horror scenes on April 16, Qaddafi dismissed the impact of the disaster, refusing to discuss his captured troops with the media. Instead, he chose to mock the captured Col. Haftar. “Do we have someone in the army whose name is Haftar?” Qaddafi asked disingenuously. “Is he a policeman or what?”
As if that betrayal wasn’t enough, the Libyan leader went on to make fun of his commander’s surname. “If you are speaking about a shepherd in the desert named Hafaytir, then I know him. I do not know anyone with this name.”
Haftar and hundreds of Libyan prisoners of war heard a recording of the interview as they sweated it out in Am Sinéné prison, a converted French military base in the suburbs of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. (The CIA played Qaddafi’s remarks back to them in a clever effort to recruit the dejected troops.) Haftar was in his mid-40s, at the peak of his military career, but he was now an angry, defeated commander abandoned by his former classmate.
Haftar gave an interview of his own from prison. He told Le Monde journalist Jean de la Guérivière, “I was suffering from lack of morale . . . due to our total incomprehension of Gaddafi’s senseless determination to carry on with the war.”
This was a dramatic turnabout for the proud officer. Prior to taking command of Wadi Doum, Haftar was recorded boasting to Qaddafi how quickly the Chad campaign would go, daring the rebels to attack him at Wadi Doum. “I will draw them here and crush them. In two weeks, I will salute you from N’Djamena,” he said to the Libyan leader.
Qaddafi made no attempt to repatriate Haftar and the other POWs. In February, a month before the battle, Qaddafi had publicly stated that “the information mentioning the concentration of Libyan troops in northern Chad . . . is lies.” Haftar had been sent on a lost command, and he had failed terribly.
CIA officers leaped at the chance to exploit Qaddafi’s disaster. On June 21, two months after Haftar’s surrender, they paid him a visit in Am Sinéné. With few options ahead of him other than a squalid cell, Haftar agreed to work with the agency. There is some testimony that prisoners who did not choose to participate in the CIA’s plans were left in prison and that some were even roughly convinced by their Chadian captors to join.
Under the direction of Vincent Cannistrano, chief of operations and analysis at the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center and the National Security Council’s Donald Fortier, about 30 American and Israeli trainers arrived in Chad to transform 1,200 disheartened Libyan prisoners into rebels. The group would be whittled down to around 700.
A year went by. In July 1988 the CIA conducted a number of interviews with Haftar. He began to insult Qaddafi and formally announced his intention to join the opposition in exile. “Our armed forces doubted the legitimacy of the task,” he told interviewers, and later told journalists that Gaddafi “pushed me into losing battles with bad information on the enemy, leading to huge losses, and many of my top officers were killed.”
Haftar has tried to minimize his relationship with American intelligence during this period. He has insisted in recent interviews that any links between him and the CIA are “fabrications.”
Numerous contemporaneous interviews and released CIA documents, however, show that he and his fellow POWs became the focal point of Operation Tulip, a three-year secret CIA program to train a small group of rebels to overthrow Qaddafi. An agency officer named “Fred,” who helped with the training, confirms this account of events.
The prison-based prep work was considered successful, so in October 1988 CIA Director William Casey ordered his case officers to contact Haftar again and urge him to create the Libyan National Army (LNA) as the military wing of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), one of around 20 opposition groups eager to depose Qaddafi. “William Casey wanted to talk to any Libyan group that would go against Gaddafi,” says Mohamed Buisir, a petroleum engineer in Dallas and former political adviser to Haftar.
The political arm of the NFSL supposedly had about 1,000 members. Haftar and his military wing theoretically could enter Libya from the weakened south. On paper it made sense. Using Saudi money, CIA direction and Israeli training, Haftar and his fellow prisoners would form a tiny army in exile that Reaganites dubbed the Libyan Contras to link them with CIA-created Nicaraguan rebels.
The Reagan Doctrine, which held that all Soviet-supported countries had governments in exile and dedicated rebel opponents, worked in some parts of the world but not in others. The bluster kept players like Haftar in the mix not because of their military prowess but because they were all the CIA had to work with.
The larval form of this fictional alliance was created by travel guidebook author Jack Wheeler and Reagan speechwriter Dana Rohrabacher with the support of White House Communications Director Pat Buchanan and CIA chief Casey. The funding came from Citizens for America, a conservative, anti-communist group headed by drugstore magnate and New York gubernatorial candidate Lewis “Lew” Lehrman.
In June 1985 this nongovernmental organization assembled a conclave that came to be nicknamed the Jamboree at Jamba, where leaders of insurgent groups from Afghanistan, Laos and Nicaragua met at Jonas Savimbi’s training camp in Jamba, Angola.
The program was in lockstep with Paul Manafort and Roger Stone’s mission to transform the Chinese-backed warlord Savimbi into a freedom fighter who would then qualify for U.S. funding.
In reality, the two Afghan delegates flew to the jamboree not from central Asia but from their homes in Bowie, Md. The Laotian representative, Bee Moua, arrived from Fitchburg, Mass. “The meeting produced nothing substantial,” Moua told the Associated Press, and ″all we did was to get to know each other.”
Nevertheless, the fictions of the Reagan Doctrine persisted, with nine countries on the president’s hit list. To bleed the Soviets, these socialist countries needed rebel movements, even if none existed. They needed “freedom fighters,” even if those fighters were disgraced, defeated, Soviet-trained leaders like Haftar.
Qaddafi knew he had little to fear from the NFSL. Since the group’s disastrous attempt to kill him in 1984 at his compound in a Tripoli suburb, they had confined themselves mostly to propaganda, producing radio broadcasts and publishing a monthly magazine, al-Inqad (Salvation), which had a circulation of 20,000.
In 1988, Operation Tulip turned into Operation Magic Carpet. Gen. Idriss Déby, who led Chad’s military forces, told the Americans to get their mercenaries, including Haftar, out of the country.
First, though, the CIA had a favor to ask: Could the 160th Special Operations Airborne Regiment have one of the captured Soviet-made Hind Mi-25 gunships that had been kept in storage at Wadi Doum after the Libyan defeat?
A deal was struck on May 21. In Operation Mount Hope III, the Night Stalkers clandestinely flew teams in two C-5 Galaxies into N’Djamena and then flew two Chinook helicopters north to Wadi Doum. There, they sling loaded the gunship and spirited it back to Fort Campbell, Ky., landing 67 hours later.
After 15 years, the U.S. was nearly done with intrigue in Chad. But first there was one more rescue mission to carry out.
Continues in part 4