NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Forget the endless obsession with assigning blame for the attack in 2012 on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi. The United States has another large problem on its hands right now in Libya. Khalifa Hifter, a former Libyan general who is now an American citizen, is mounting what could be a de facto coup, with far-reaching consequences for Libya and the United States.
General Hifter was one of the Libyan officers who fought in Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s disastrous war with Chad in the 1980s. But afterward, he decamped for the United States. While researching a book on the origins of the 2011 Libyan Revolution, I uncovered many traces of a long relationship between General Hifter, the United States and the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the main exile group opposing Colonel Qaddafi at the time.
These included assertions that the C.I.A. recruited General Hifter to help prepare military activity against the dictator. General Hifter settled in Virginia and, I found, was put in charge of training like-minded Libyans as prospective insurgents. But those preparations never bore fruit; instead, in the late 1990s, the United States switched to pursuing accommodation with Colonel Qaddafi.
When the indigenous 2011 rebellion broke out and NATO intervened, General Hifter returned to Libya expecting to command the rebel forces, but lost out to Abdul Fattah Younes, Colonel Qaddafi’s former interior minister. Mr. Younes was later assassinated, with suspicion falling on an Islamist militia then emerging in Benghazi.
This month, General Hifter re-emerged as the leader of an assault, backed by jet fighters and artillery, on Islamist camps in Benghazi; simultaneously, his partisans terminated a session of Parliament in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. He claims to have been planning this maneuver by shuttling among Libyan military figures in Libya’s major cities — a scenario reminiscent of Colonel Qaddafi’s preparations for his own 1969 coup.
General Hifter calls his program Operation Karama — Arabic for “dignity.” In interviews, he styles himself a fierce patriot with a “civic duty” to deliver Libyans from the Muslim Brotherhood. He speaks of “cleansing” Libya of Islamists, especially in Benghazi, where he blames them for daily assassinations and kidnappings.
He has not stated an end-goal, but has said he would not refuse a leadership role — if the people should will it. He rules out compromising with Islamists, who, he says, only respond to force.
In recent days, General Hifter has gained backing from key Libyan army and air force units, important militias and senior members of the regional security forces, as well as oblique endorsements from some leaders of the 2011 revolution.
But the United States government has not expressed a judgment. It seems to be avoiding endorsement or rejection of General Hifter, limiting itself to expressions of concern about a situation it calls “extremely fluid” and joining an international call for all parties to refrain from violent acts. Secretary of State John Kerry has asked a senior diplomat, David Satterfield, to go to Libya as an envoy, but has not indicated a direct connection with General Hifter’s action.
At a press briefing Thursday, the State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki sidestepped discussion of General Hifter, but underscored American support for Libya’s people, its democratic process, and its Parliament’s response to the current “situation,” which at that point amounted to announcing a date for parliamentary elections — June 25. On Sunday, Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq won a vote of confidence as Parliament defied General Hifter, who has challenged the legitimacy of the legislature.
If General Hifter’s gambit succeeds, will there even be an election? Because of his past, many Libyans already think the United States is behind him. This is a problem, since the belief ascribes to General Hifter a writ of authority that he may not have. And by staying silent, the United States only feeds suspicions that he is part of an American program.
Meanwhile, General Hifter’s resurrection has acquired a redemptive quality. In Washington, some policy experts and State Department officials quietly express satisfaction that someone is going after Ansar al-Sharia, the militia blamed for the attack on the United States compound. And a sizable number of Libyans hope General Hifter can reverse the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on Parliament, which they consider a hijacking of democracy.
But redemption is a less worthy goal than protecting Libya’s experiment with democracy. That means the United States must make clear the nature of its relationship with General Hifter.
Do we still have a relationship with him? Do we sympathize with all of his spoken intentions, which include disbanding Parliament? Or with only some — for example, reclaiming Benghazi from extremists? What kind of behavior will we hold him to, as an American citizen bearing arms abroad, and as a potential leader of Libya? Certainly, if he were to overturn democratic gains, he would be acting against stated United States policy.
More than once, America has gotten into trouble in Libya by not taking clear positions. During the 2003 rapprochement, we told Colonel Qaddafi we had conditions for reconciling with him. Then we didn’t enforce them. The fact that General Hifter is now hunting Islamists, rather than Qaddafi loyalists, is a direct consequence of the West’s failure in 2011 to plan for security or reconstruction after Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster. Good planning might have prevented Benghazi from falling into the wrong hands to begin with.
In an interview in the early spring of 2012, J. Christopher Stevens, who was then ambassador-designate, conveyed to me his deep fears regarding this very outcome. Ironically, Benghazi did not fall to Islamists and criminal elements until after the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, which took the lives of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. Benghazi has since become the northern anchor of an arc of instability that extends into sub-Saharan Africa.
But it is never too late to learn a lesson. Whatever his flaws, General Hifter has some good points. With the United States unwilling to act militarily, and the Libyan government compromised by Islamist sympathizers within, he may be the only person able and willing to lead a successful fight against extremists in Benghazi. That said, Libya’s democratic process must survive.
To pursue both goals, America needs to delineate where it believes the limits to General Hifter’s action and ambition should lie, as well as the consequences if he and his supporters stray from them. At the same time, America must stand by the nascent Libyan government, as we did when Benghazi separatists challenged central authority by trying sell oil illegally last March.
If it gets this balance right, the United States may yet be able to preserve a fragile democracy, and tame a dictator — before he becomes one.
Ethan Chorin, managing director of Perim Associates, an Africa-focused consultancy, was a Foreign Service officer in Libya from 2004 to 2006 and is the author of “Exit the Colonel: The Hidden History of the Libyan Revolution.”
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(via NY Times)