Khalifa Haftar and the Future of Civil-Military Relations in Libya


There were celebrations in Morocco and congratulatory statements from across the world on December 17, 2015, when a group of Libyan leaders finally signed an agreement to end the political crisis that had torn apart the country since late 2013. To date, that political agreement has not been implemented, despite its promise of political reunification, economics stabilization, and substantial international security assistance. Continued delays in implementation undermine the agreement’s legitimacy and increase the risk of further deteriorating stability. There are many barriers to implementation, including the fact that Libyans have not engaged in a national reconciliation process to overcome the grievances and mistrust built up over four decades of dictatorship and years of internal turmoil since 2011. Internal rivalries based on region, city, tribe, political factions, ethnicity, and militia membership have supplanted dictatorial repression. The costs of this multi-layered disunity are stark: Libya has lost billions of dollars in potential revenues due to fights over control of the oil sector. And nearly 5,000 people have been killed due to the instability since 2014, when Libya formally divided politically.

Perhaps the most immediate barrier to implementation is the role of General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA). Although Secretary of State John Kerry did not mention him by name in his statement in Vienna after the meeting to support Libya on May 16, Haftar was clearly on his mind when he said battles of individuals serving their own interests undermined Libya’s security, and that Libya was at a crossroads between a fate of chaos fueled by personal rivalries or unity and peace. Article Eight of the current agreement stipulates that the Presidency Council should be the Supreme Commander of the Libyan Army, in control of all senior-level security official appointments and dismissals. In effect, this provision would give the Presidency Council control of Haftar’s fate. The pro-Haftar eastern government has made removal of this article one of its few conditions for recognizing the Government of National Accord (GNA).

This impasse underscores the need for Libyans to decide once and for all what relationship the military should have with civilian institutions in Libya, and specifically what role Haftar can or will play in the future of Libya. This has also been a difficult impasse for Western governments to navigate, harkening to a recurring Middle East policy battle between prioritizing counter-terrorism and security, and longer-term interests like political stability, rule of law and human rights. Haftar has contributed to counter-terrorism efforts against groups like Islamic State, especially in Benghazi, while undermining Libya’s long-term stability.

Haftar’s Role

Haftar commands one of the most powerful security blocs in Libya. Since he launched Operation Dignity to fight terrorism in eastern Libya two years ago, Western states have been conflicted. While they share many of the same enemies as Haftar, they also harbor deep suspicions that he could undermine weak post-revolution civilian institutions and the broader interests of the Libyan people.

On the one hand, there have been widespread reports that French special forces have been based in Benghazi for months supporting Haftar’s LNA, and key foreign powers such as Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni have stated that Haftar must have a role in Libya’s future, provided he submit to GNA civilian oversight. On the other hand, Haftar recently refused to meet UN envoy to Libya Martin Kobler, and key allies such as senior U.K. officials have expressed concerns about working with Haftar. Moreover, many fear that assisting militant groups like Haftar’s LNA could rekindle past factional violence, further undermining the fragile political accord reached earlier this year.

The Libyan people themselves are divided between those in the east and around Benghazi who view Haftar as the country’s only hope for stability and those who see Haftar as an unchecked return to Qadhafi-era repression. Many other Libyans I have interacted with have also found themselves in this middle of this debate: distrustful of Haftar and his motives, but considering him a necessary evil in the fight against common enemies, provided he submit to civilian oversight.
Haftar and Libyan Politics

Haftar has repeatedly said that he has no interest in politics. Yet he uses his military power to influence politics, like many militia leaders across the spectrum in Libya since 2011. In theory, Haftar reports to the speaker of the recognized parliament, Aguila Saleh, the supreme commander of the armed forces. In practice, though, Haftar exerts significant power over civilian entities. Leaders like Aguila Saleh and boycotting Presidency Council member Ali Al-Qatrani are protesting aspects of the 2015 agreement and the GNA because they are against Haftar’s personal interests.

Haftar’s influence in the Libyan political sphere did not come easily. In February 2014, he announced a coup against what he and many others perceived to be an Islamist-dominated government in Libya, although no one took him very seriously at the time. Over the next few months, he consolidated the political support he needed to launch Operation Dignity in May, but then became mired in confrontation for over two years with myriad Islamist and extremist militias in Benghazi, including Ansar Al-Sharia and Islamic State. Self-imposed deadlines to “liberate” Benghazi came and went, and promises to move on Tripoli to remove the government there went unkept.

Since the Presidency Council nominated a new cabinet earlier this year, Haftar and his allies have been motivated to accelerate these battles to ensure they would have some leverage over the formation and activities of this new GNA. In particular, they desire control over the defense ministry, the new nominee for which is one of Haftar’s rivals, Mahdi Al-Barghathi. Saleh has also reportedly asked for an expanded cabinet to include more ministers from the pro-Haftar east.

Haftar and his allies wish to have influence over who can and cannot wield power in a future Libya. They aim to accomplish this through appearing to be the strongest Libyan partner the GNA and the international community has in the fight against the Islamic State, including through successes in Benghazi (Operation Blood of the Martyrs) and against the Islamic State’s headquarters in Sirte (what Haftar has called “Gardabiya II”).

Haftar does not have the power to take over Libya completely by force — no force does at the moment — but he does have enough power to prevent unity. More significantly, Haftar and other militia leaders who defy civilian authority are symptoms of some of the broader challenges facing Libya: Libya has never really had professional military structures, and there has been no successful effort to define what the post-revolution security structures will look like or who will lead them.

Potential Solutions

Libya’s civilian leaders must lead the way overseeing these ideological shifts to avoid calcification of a destabilizing military culture, and the international community needs to help. The international conference on Libya in Vienna on May 16 was a chance for Libya’s international partners develop a clear strategy to help stabilize Libya. Prior to the conference, UN Special Envoy Martin Kobler called for a united national army to eventually hold a monopoly over the use of force, and this month NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow reiterated pledged support to help Libya build its defense institutions upon request from the Presidency Council once it consolidates control in Libya. In the joint communique released after the ministerial, participants recognized the need for all Libyan forces to unite under a GNA-administered central command, according to the agreement. The international community must now support Libyan actions to implement this policy.

One actionable revision participants in this political dialogue could explore would be to amend Article Eight of the 2015 agreement to note that the commander of the LNA must have a key role in the post-crisis military. This role could be the commander of a united army’s operations in the east, established within a council of other regional commanders that would report to the Presidency Council.

In exchange for this concession, which might also give Haftar access to legal arms shipments he has asked for, additional amendment language should include clear limitations on the LNA’s operational space, both in terms of where the LNA could operate physically and what it could do in those areas. For example, the LNA could be permitted to fulfill in a narrowly defined counterterrorism strategy, but not to defend oil terminals or borders unless in conjunction with forces regularly deployed there. There would be clearly articulated consequences in the agreement for the LNA if it overstepped this mandate, including international sanctions.

Concurrently, the Presidency Council, acting as the internationally recognized supreme commander of the armed forces, needs to begin to create the space for civilian control over a professional military. Libya’s current state of civil unrest is a time of social change that presents opportunities for ideological shifts, including in the military institutions, but the weak civilian institutions face stiff competition from leaders like Haftar who exert disproportionate control over these shifts. Further reforms should include limiting how much of the LNA reports to Haftar. For example, LNA units based in the east would report to Haftar as commander in the east, while other LNA units would have to agree to report to other regional commanders to foster a culture of professionalism instead of personal loyalty.
Reforms and international assistance should also take into account on lessons learned from failed efforts to build official defense institutions in the past. For example, past efforts have faltered in part because training was interrupted during spikes of local insecurity. Recognizing inherent challenges to foreign presences in Libya since the 2012 Benghazi attack, there needs to be a more consistent presence of trainers in-country along with the security and diplomatic support necessary for that consistency. There is promise in focused in-country support to a growing cadre of fighters with whom the United States and other partners are already working, including train-the-trainer programs with incentives for individuals to continue on as local trainers. Out-of-country training has been unsuccessful in the past, and it may be more prudent for the United States to instead work closely with Italy, France, the United Kingdom and others to ensure smaller in-country training that is consistent, complementary and reinforcing — down to standardizing which weapons individuals train on, what curriculum is used, and the number and types of embedded advisors in the defense ministry. Furthermore, past security sector reform efforts were hampered by factional rivalries within existing, weak structures. Trainers, advisors and diplomats should focus on identifying and facilitating the mitigation of factional dysfunction early on in higher echelons of entities like the ministries of defense and interior to demonstrate success and gain momentum to reform broader institutions. Even if these lessons are incorporated into future assistance, international expectations of these programs should be tempered. Finding militias suitable to work with will always be challenging and risky, and lifting the U.N. arms embargo on pro-GNA groups will be precarious as Libyan entities do not have comfortable control over weapons flows. But given the widespread impact of Libya’s insecurity on global security, these are becoming risks that can no longer deter the international community from action.

The support should also take into account the large body of theory surrounding civilian-military relations to improve effectiveness in two specific areas. First, as argued by Michael Desch, the strength of civilian control over the military is shaped by the specific environment threats in which these entities coexist. Defense institution building programs must work within this reality instead of using standard operating procedures for reform in countries with pre-existing security entities. Second, security sector reform depends on additional support for Libyan civilian institutions, especially in the justice and financial sectors. Renowned sociologist Morris Janowitz, has argued that this assistance is critical to build public confidence in civilian institutions and lay the groundwork for civilian control over the military in the long term.

This civil-military divide common in democratic states may not be natural to Libya in the short term. According to Samuel Huntington’s theory, as a state facing high internal threats relative to external threats at the moment, Libya faces an uphill battle fostering productive relations between growing civilian and military institutions. Nevertheless, as the international community seeks to help Libya move toward that future envisioned by the protesters who launched the 2011 revolution, it is critical to maintain and expand efforts to develop and sustain the civilian and political structures in Libya. In the absence of this development, Libya is vulnerable to repeating the past.


Lydia Sizer is a Senior Consultant for Menas Associates in London. She served as a Libya Desk Officer at the State Department from 2012 to 2014.

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