Khalifa Haftar | The General in his labyrinth

Khalifa Haftar | The General in his labyrinth

From being one of the members of the officers’ group that toppled King Idris in 1969 bringing Muammar Gaddafi to power in Libya to a renegade General commanding a self-styled army that is fighting to topple the government in Tripoli, Khalifa Haftar has always been at war. His life is a long story of everything that shaped the political life of Libya over the past half a century — coup attempts, rebellions, Cold War spycraft, changing loyalty and civil strife. As the post-Gaddafi Libya plunged into chaos and anarchy, Mr. Haftar mobilised his troops and amassed power and influence in the east. Then he wanted to take over the whole of Libya, with support from powerful friends in Moscow, Abu Dhabi and Cairo. But his attempts to capture Tripoli, which hosts the country’s UN-recognised government, were thwarted, after Turkey sent mercenaries and weapons to back up the government.

Born in the northeastern Libyan town Ajdabiya in 1943, Mr. Haftar moved to the port city of Derna in the early 1960s for education. After graduating from the Benghazi Royal Military College, he joined the military. After the ‘al-Fateh Revolution’ brought an end to Libya’s monarchy in 1969, Mr. Haftar rose through the ranks of the new regime quickly. He commanded the Libyan forces that took part in Egypt’s attack on Israeli troops in the occupied Sinai Peninsula in 1973. In the late 1970s, Mr. Haftar travelled to the Soviet Union for military training.

War in Chad

His life would take a U-turn after Gaddafi escalated Libya’s intervention in the neighbouring Chad in 1980. Mr. Haftar was the leader of the Libyan forces that were fighting Chad’s French-backed regime. In 1986, the Libyan troops were defeated and Mr. Haftar and hundreds of his men were captured as prisoners. Gaddafi disowned them. Probably this was the time the Americans discovered the worth of Mr. Haftar. He would be moved from incarceration in Chad to the battlefields of Zaire (now, Democratic Republic of Congo), where he joined the anti-Gaddafi group, National Front for the Salvation of Libya.

When ties with Zaire turned cold, he moved to Kenya. By 1990, the CIA took him and his troops to the U.S. under a refugee programme. In the U.S., he took up residence near Langley, Virginia, which houses the CIA headquarters. Ever since, he cooperated with the CIA in its various attempts to incapacitate Gaddafi. He stayed in the U.S. till mass protests broke out in eastern Libya in 2011, inspired by similar ones elsewhere in the Arab world.

Back in Benghazi, Mr. Haftar took the command of the rebel Libyan soldiers who were fighting Gaddafi. When NATO interfered in Libya, Mr. Haftar became the local face of the rebellion. After Gaddafi was toppled and killed, the country fell into chaos with jihadist groups capturing pockets. In 2014, Mr. Haftar appeared on TV, declaring war on the Islamists in Benghazi. His Libyan National Army launched Operation Dignity, which ousted jihadists from Benghazi and its outskirts. Mr. Haftar aligned with the Tobruk-based government, which appointed him “field marshal”. But he wasn’t done fighting yet.

He accused the Tripoli government, which is backed by different militia groups and political outfits, including the Libyan wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, of harbouring radicals. In April 2019, he launched a military operation against Tripoli. The plan was to topple the government and bring the whole Libya under his command. The UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which consider the Brotherhood a terrorist group, supported Mr. Haftar’s move. Russia, which enjoyed deep ties with Libya during the Cold War, also threw its weight behind him. And he made substantial progress by the year-end having captured territories in the sparsely populated south and west.

But Mr. Haftar’s plans were thwarted after Turkey, which sees the Tripoli government as an ally, stepped in. Early this year, Turkey sent weapons and mercenaries to Tripoli, in its most audacious foreign intervention since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, to fight Haftar’s men. They stopped Mr. Haftar’s advances and then launched a counter-offensive, forcing him to call for a ceasefire last month.

The war has now entered into a stalemate. But it’s not over yet, as Mr. Haftar, still backed by Moscow and others, is ready to fight another day.

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