In so many ways, Libya should be a successful and prosperous nation. Its lengthy Mediterranean coastline is dotted with significant ports and infrastructure. Its oil reserves are the largest in Africa and top 10 in the world. Libya has a relatively educated population of just 6 million, and close proximity to Europe. Yet since the death of the former dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, the nation has spiraled deeper into chaos.
Now, things have devolved into a long-running civil war between the government in Tripoli, which is supported by the United Nations, and the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, which are advancing on the capital. Don’t bet against Haftar. I commanded the NATO forces that intervened in Libya in 2011 at the request of the UN to prevent Qaddafi from massacring a significant portion of his population. I met Haftar, who is a charismatic figure with a fascinating background.
He was an officer in Qaddafi’s army, but turned against the dictator and eventually took refuge in the US, where he lived for two decades. He speaks Italian, English and Russian in addition to Arabic. After the NATO intervention, he returned to Libya and consolidated power in the east, eventually conquering the port city of Benghazi. He is backed by some Arab countries and at times received support from European nations, including France and Italy.
Despite a recent stint in a French hospital, he seems to have the energy and drive to continue consolidating the country under his rule.
There are four principal problems at the heart of Libya’s troubles. First is the complex system of tribal allegiances that a dictator like Qaddafi was able to keep under control by brutal repression. Not unlike when Yugoslavia splintered in the 1990s and the resulting wars tore apart the Balkans, post-Qaddafi Libya faces ongoing violence from tribal conflict.
A second difficulty is the rise of terrorist organizations amid the mayhem, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. They want to continue destabilizing Libya and use it as a base for infiltrating and attacking Europe across the narrow stretch of the Mediterranean that separates it and Italy.
A third issue is the flow of refugees out of the war-torn country. These are not only Libyans, but also tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans who make their way to the ports of Libya in hopes of transportation to Italy and then into the European Union. Many cannot find passage and stay in Libya. And among them there are certainly some returning militants and deserters from ISIS.
Finally, Russia is exerting increasing influence according to many analysts. The Russians had longstanding ties to Qaddafi, and are hoping to achieve economic benefits by supporting Haftar. While reports that Haftar is “Moscow’s man in Libya” seem overblown, any increasing Russian presence is a legitimate concern.
Most observers believe that the US has a limited role to play, even if Haftar is a dual Libyan-American citizen with children living in the US. From the moment the NATO campaign ended – a moment that will go down in military history as the first conflict whose end was announced on Twitter - it has been clear that the US wanted no part of reconstructing Libya, feeling it was a job for the Europeans.
This may have been a justifiable approach in terms of policy. But the Europeans have failed to provide the economic aid, reconstruction support and counterterrorism assistance needed to bring about a negotiated truce. Haftar, with his backers, has filled the void. The potential for Libya to turn even more violent is rising.
Haftar’s recent gains notwithstanding, an ultimate military victory by either side appears unlikely. What’s needed is a top-down diplomatic approach, with the UN Security Council approving talks under the auspices of the European Union. Just as the Security Council provided the legal umbrella for the military intervention in 2011, it can provide legitimacy for discussions to end the fighting. The US could be most helpful to bring Haftar to the table.
The goal would be persuading the two parties into a power-sharing arrangement akin to what ended the conflict in Colombia, in which the FARC rebels were guaranteed seats in the national legislature. (This is also the best approach to ending the 18-year-war in Afghanistan.)
Haftar is cagey enough to understand that a negotiated settlement is the only way forward - and his drive on Tripoli may be designed to give him a stronger bargaining position when such talks get underway. That can’t happen soon enough.
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