US, NATO and the destruction of Libya: The Western front of a widening war
Most western embassies evacuated their personnel from Tripoli over the past few weeks as the fighting between rival armed militias creates a nightmare of violence, insecurity and death for millions of Libyans. The United States used its military presence in the Mediterranean to escort its embassy personnel and Marine guards to travel by road over the last weekend to Tunisia. The evacuation of western diplomats leaving the millions of Libyans to an uncertain fate has brought to the fore the Libyan dimensions of a wider theater of warfare from Tripoli through Benghazi to Cairo, Alexandria and Gaza and from Aleppo in Syria to Mosul in Iraq. The former allies of NATO such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are now connected to differing factions of the Libyan civil war. In Libya, the war and bloodletting between the US supported General Khalifah Hifter (sometimes spelt Haftar) and the militias supported by Qatar is one indication of former allies falling out. Citizens of the West have little understanding of the depth of the sufferings unleashed on the peoples of North Africa, Palestine, Syria and Iraq since the United States and NATO launched wars against the peoples of this region. The battles in Libya are merging with the criminal war against the people of Palestine, especially the peoples of Gaza.
It was three years ago when NATO declared the end of the NATO mission, loudly announcing that the NATO mission to Libya had been ‘one of the most successful in NATO history.’ Despite this declaration of success there were clear signs of the remnants of the NATO suborned militias fighting for control of Libya. Today, that fighting has engulfed all of Libyan society to the point that the militias that had been deployed by NATO are now out of control while the funders of the militias are caught in the wider disputations over the future of Africa, Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula. Calls for the United Nations and for the African Union to militarily intervene in Libya must now be accompanied by the call for ensuring that none of the current members of the UN Security Council who were participants in the NATO intervention can be part of any UN force to demilitarize Libya to disarm the out of control militias.
THE CURRENT CIVIL WAR IN LIBYA
News of the current civil war in Libya remains confusing because the western news agencies have a vested interest in keeping the issues unclear so as to keep Libya destabilized and destroyed. Since the NATO destruction of Libya in 2011 there have been over 50,000 Libyans who have lost their lives. This is in a society where the United Nations had gone in with a mandate of Responsibility to Protect. Instead of protecting Libyan civilians, the NATO forces killed tens of thousands, built up militias and then left the country under differing factions who have unleashed a reign of terror in the society. Despite the best efforts of the United States’ State Department and NATO to present a so called ‘transition’ process with the procedural democratic rituals such as elections, the role of the militias has been the dominant feature of the warfare and destruction. When prominent Libyan human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis was slain in Benghazi last month, both Samantha Powers (US Permanent Representative to the United Nations) and Hilary Clinton (former Secretary of State) issued statements denouncing her murder but these two architects of the destruction of Libya remain indicted in the court of public opinion for their roles in creating the present conflagration. What has been kept from the citizens of the USA is the role of financial enterprises such as Goldman Sachs, Tradition Financial Services of Switzerland, French bank Société Générale SA, hedge-fund firm Och-Ziff Capital Management Group and private-equity firm Blackstone Group in their dealings with the Libyan Investment Authority. The more informed will have to read the financial press to follow the many lawsuits that are ongoing in the scrutiny in wide-ranging U.S. and British corruption probes that are examining the lengths to which some Western financial firms went to gain a piece of Libya’s oil wealth.
A close scrutiny of the current probe of Goldman Sachs dealings with the Libyan Investment Authority by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for possible violations of American anti-corruption laws will help shed light on the powerful forces in the United States that pushed the war against the peoples of Libya in 2011. Because of the propaganda war about fighting terrorism in Africa, western citizens cannot easily understand how the government of the United States supported the Jihadists in Benghazi. Thus far, the US Congress has muddled the information about the relationship between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the most extreme militia groups because representatives such as Congressman Darrel Issa from California have been deliberately creating confusion to disguise the complicity of the US military and intelligence forces in their dealings with the most extreme militias.
From time to time the US public is diverted from the civil war by the USA seemingly mounting operations to seize ‘terrorists’ such as Ahmed Abu Khattala (in 2014) for the killings of US officials in Benghazi) or the capture of Abu Anas al-Libi in 2013. However, the twists and turns of the web of western intelligence and military operations in North Africa have come into full integration with the wider war against the peoples of Palestine and North Africa. General Hifter now represents the public face of the US supported forces in the western edge of the present wars in North Africa.
THE UNITED STATES AND GENERAL HIFTER
When NATO intervened in Libya, the North Atlantic militarists were experimenting with a new kind of warfare because the citizens of the West had been opposed to the intervention based on the mobilizations and demonstrations of the peace and social justice movements. In order to make the NATO intervention acceptable to US citizens, the Obama administration claimed that there would be no deployment of massive troops, even though early in the campaign the US Africa Command was taking credit for the NATO Operation. This kind of warfare went to great lengths to avoid the deployment of ground troops from the USA or the other NATO invaders; instead there was reliance on incessant bombing from the air, the deployment of armed militias, the mobilization of third party countries (in this case Qatar), the mobilization of Special Forces and the use of the western media for disinformation, propaganda and psychological warfare. When NATO declared its mission a success it was part of an internal debate within the corridors of the militarists because as we learnt from the book, ‘Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War,’ by former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, there were deep divisions over the prosecution of this NATO bombardment and destruction of Libya. With his own eyes on history, Robert Gates said that he was about to resign over this NATO intervention and war in Libya.
Now that the world is witnessing the full blowback of this war against Libya with the death of John Christopher Stevens (former US ambassador) in Benghazi and the present evacuation of the US mission from Tripoli, it is instructive to grasp the role of some of the US supported forces such as General Khalifah Hifter. (See Russ Baker (April 22, 2011). “Is General Khalifa Hifter The CIA’s Man In Libya?” ) Hifter, now 71, had been in the Libyan military from the time of the military coup in 1969, but after 1987 he defected from the Gadaffi government. When the West had imposed sanctions on Libya, Hifter was associated with opposition National Salvation Front of Libya (NSFL). In 1988 he relocated to the United States and lived well in that notorious suburb of Washington, DC, – Langley, Virginia. When the NATO bombings started in March 2011, Hifter returned to Libya and joined in with the numerous factions.
It is most important here to state for readers that the CIA recruited elements in Libya who had been earlier designated as terrorists. In the many books about Libya under Gaddafi the names of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and Abdelhakim Belhadj featured prominently. Eastern Libya was a base for subversion and the laziness of the Congressional representatives of the USA prevents the full exposure of how the US Africa Command and the CIA recruited Jihadists such as Abdelhakim Belhadj. It is this alliance with Jihadists that General Hifter returned to in 2011 but in his search for dominance in the anti-Gaddafi forces, there was another general who was seeking to place his stamp on the rebellion. General Abdul Fattah Younis had been a senior military officer under Gaddafi who had reached the position of Minister of Interior. He resigned from the Gaddafi government in February 2011 to join the ‘rebellion. ‘
The abduction and assassination of General Younis in July 2011 removed the only other senior military person who could compete for the position as a military strongman in the post-Gaddafi era. After the assassination and humiliation of Gaddafi in October 2011, Hifter became leader of one of the 1700 militias with over 250,000 persons under arms. Abdelhakim Belhadj became the most powerful person in Tripoli after the NATO ‘victory’ when he installed himself as the head of the Tripoli Military Council. When the United States undertook its transition program for Libya, Belhadj dropped his military title and contested elections as a civilian leader. Hifter could not openly challenge the LIFG forces in Tripoli so he worked to build relations with the Zintan militias working hard to emerge as the new military strongman of Libya.
Since 2014 Hifter has been involved in a number of high profile military actions (first a declared military takeover in a failed coup attempt of February 2014 and later in May in a prolonged war to defeat the Misrata forces and those supported by Qatar). From the western platforms and those who have interviewed Hifter, this general claims the allegiance of over 70,000 troops along with the Zintan militia forces.
On Friday, February 14, Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hifter announced a coup in Libya. ‘The national command of the Libyan Army is declaring a movement for a new road map’ (to rescue the country), Hifter declared through a video post. Even the New York Times ridiculed this coup attempt with the story by David Kirkpatrick who reported on the coup from Cairo. In his report, ‘In Libya, a Coup. Or Perhaps Not,’ Kirkpatrick drew attention to the colorful career of Hifter without explaining to his audience the close relationships between Hifter and the US web of military and intelligence operatives in North Africa. In May 2014, Hifter reappeared in the international headlines with his bravado report that he was fighting to root out terrorists from Benghazi.
There are numerous militias in Benghazi but the two well-known ones were the February 17 Martyrs Brigade and the Ansar al-Sharia militias. While the forces that came to be called Ansar al-Sharia had been mobilized by the NATO planners to join the war to remove Gadaffi, by September 2012 these varying militia forces had disagreed among themselves and this particular militia was blamed for the attack on the CIA facility in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 when four US operatives were engulfed in the intra militia warfare.
One indication of the levels of external support for Hifter came from the fact that his military wing that is called the National Army was able to use aerial bombardment against his opponents. Hifter launched Operation Libyan Dignity on May 16, saying his mission was to dissolve the General National Congress, which he labelled Islamist, and to destroy ‘terrorists.’ In order to ingratiate himself with western propaganda forces, Hifter labelled his opponents in Benghazi as terrorists and claimed that these ‘terrorists ‘had been allowed to establish bases in Libya. This was clear double talk because it was the Central Intelligence Agency under General Petraeus as we learnt from the biography by Paula Broadwell who had been recruiting Islamists from Eastern Libya to fight in Syria.
The other evidence of collaboration between Hifter and western intelligence forces came when in the midst of the fighting between Hifter and his opponents in Benghazi, the US Special Operations forces carried out their mission to ’capture’ Ahmed Abu Khattala. This US operation exposed the close cooperation between Hifter and the USA. When Libyan citizens complained about the military campaign of Hifter, the US ambassador to Libya refused to ‘condemn’ the killings of innocent citizens in Benghazi by Hifter and his ‘National Army’. Hifter’s avowed aim to dissolve the General National Congress exposed deeper disagreements between the United States and Qatar over the future of Libya and the politics of North Africa.
Although Hifter was fighting with his ‘National Army,’ the divisions between the varying militias led to big battles between Hifter and other militia forces. Media reports claim that Hifter is supported by external forces in the USA, Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. It is significant that in this line up of support there was no mention of Turkey and Qatar. One of the strongest militia forces in Libya from the time of the NATO intervention had been the Misrata fighters. As we documented in our book, ‘Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya’, it was from Misrata where the forces of Qatar had been landed in order to carry out the takeover of Tripoli in July/August 2011. We know from media reports from Al Jazeera that there are forces sympathetic to the MIsrata militias in Qatar. In the Al Jazeera typology of the varying militias in Libya we are told that the ‘235 militia brigades are collectively the most powerful single force in Libya, fighting through a six-month siege during the uprising. They are equipped with heavy weapons, tanks and truck-launched rockets and have the power to be a decisive force in any struggle between Haftar and Islamist forces.’ One can distinguish between this report and those of other western forces such as the BBC or Voice of America on the nature of the Libyan militias.
When certain western media outlets were hailing General Hifter as a savior and comparing him to General Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi of Egypt, this was part of the propaganda war to sell Hifter to the citizens of Benghazi who had stood up to the bombardment by his forces. The Misrata factions were the military wing of that section of the political forces that dominated the General National Congress. Hifter was in a struggle to consolidate the varying militia forces under his leadership and there were many glowing reports of how Hifter was the savior of Libya. However, from Qatar one writer, Ibrahim Sharqieh, noted in an article in the New York Times that the world should ‘Beware Libya’s ‘Fair Dictator’. Ibrahim Sharquieh stated that ‘Over the past two years many of them have profited from – and developed an interest in maintaining – the chaos that engulfs the country. Warlords, Islamist groups and other committed revolutionaries who truly fought against the Qaddafi government will not surrender to General Hifter’s movement – and that poses a grave threat to Libya’s prospects for stability.’ Washington’s tolerance of General Hifter’s movement has made things much worse. Deborah Jones, the United States ambassador to Libya, was quoted as saying, ‘I am not going to come out and condemn blanketly what he did’ because, she added, General Hifter’s forces were going after groups on Washington’s terrorist list.
This article brought out the clear divisions between Doha and Washington which was a reflection of deeper divisions in North Africa and Palestine. In the war against the peoples of Syria, the Qatar regime had been very active along with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in providing finance and weaponry to the zealots who have now proclaimed themselves ‘The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ or (ISIL or ISIS) . However, relations between Qatar and Washington frayed over the path of the political process in Egypt. The military forces who had killed and incarcerated hundreds of thousands of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are not supported by the current leadership in Qatar. Qatar and Saudi Arabia broke ranks over the military takeover by General Sisi and the counter revolutionary forces of the Egyptian military.
In this new disagreement between the political leadership of Qatar and the generals in Cairo, the news outlets and NGOs supported by Qatar have been harassed. Qatari Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt were harassed and arrested. In June 2014, two Al Jazeera English journalists were sentenced to seven years in jail and one to 10 years. These journalists were sentenced by an Egyptian court on charges including aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and reporting false news.
EXPANSION OF THE WAR AND BATTLE FOR THE AIRPORT IN TRIPOLI
Of the 1700 militias in Libya the dominant forces are represented by the militias from Zintan (The Al-Zintan Revolutionaries’ Military Council was formed in 2011), bringing together 23 militias from Zintan and the Nafusa Mountains in western Libya, the militias from Misrata and the militias from Benghazi. In the case of the capital Tripoli, the competing militias controlled differing neighborhoods with the militias from Zintan and the militias from Misrata, two of the dominant forces, claiming legitimacy. As there was no central command over the use of force, from time to time different factions of the military vied for military supremacy. In the case of the expanding wars in the East, the Misrata forces have intensified their battles to gain the upper hand in Tripoli. For the past few weeks this battle for supremacy has taken the form of a deadly battle where hundreds have been killed and aircraft worth more than US$1.5billion destroyed. Since the NATO declaration of success in 2011, the Tripoli airport area has been under the control of former fighters from the western town of Zintan. Rival Islamist-leaning militias from Misrata along with their allies fought with the Zintanis in recent days, but failed to dislodge them.
Recently, the Zintan militia group which has controlled the airport since the end of the revolution, claimed victory over the Misrata-led Operation Dawn force that tried to dislodge them from the airport. Future information will bring out whether this battle is an extension of the battles between the USA and Qatar since the forces seeking to dislodge the Zintan forces from the airport are the Misrata militias. For the past three years under the so called transition plans by the USA Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI) there were efforts to pay off hundreds of thousands of youths in the militias hoping to silence some of the guns. The US legation and the other western Embassies have been caught in this new round of intense fighting, hence the evacuation by road to Tunisia. Thousands of residents of Tripoli are fleeing the capital while third country nationals are being evacuated. None of the armed groups are listening to the calls by the United Nations for a ceasefire.
The destruction of aircraft in the fighting, which began on 13 July, has cost an estimated US$1.5 billion. The battles around the airport are by no means tame battles of armed men with side weapons. The Misrata forces after failing to dislodge the Zintan forces have been taking over residential areas adjacent to the airport, using tanks to pound the Zintanis, who in turn respond with shells and anti-aircraft fire. Hifter’s calculation that his forces and allies would ‘mop’ up the other militias has now backfired as the Libyan theater of war merges with the wider battles that are raging in Palestine and in Syria and Iraq. With the criminal assault on the peoples of Gaza the sympathies have now increased for those in Libya allied to the faction of the Palestinian movement resisting the Israeli occupation and bombardment. At the same time the massive demonstrations by the Palestinian peoples in the West Bank and the sterling resistance of the Palestinians in Gaza have deep consequences for the political leadership in Egypt. It is very clear that the present political leadership of Egypt is an ally of the conservatives ruling Israel who have inflicted collective punishment on the people of Gaza. Even the New York Times boasted of this alliance between the counterrevolutionaries in Egypt and the neo-conservative militarists in Israel on July 30, the Times noted,
‘After the military ouster of the Islamist government in Cairo last year, Egypt has led a new coalition of Arab states — including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan — that has effectively lined up with Israel in its fight against Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip. That, in turn, may have contributed to the failure of the antagonists to reach a negotiated ceasefire even after more than three weeks of bloodshed.’
What the strategic planners in Washington and Tel a Viv forget is that the 80 million citizens of Egypt are also aware of this alliance between Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. When NATO intervened in Libya in 2011, one of the unspoken goals was to develop a rear base for western interventionist forces in case the Egyptian revolution was radicalized to the point where the popular forces started to dismantle the institutions of oppression and exploitation. Benghazi was crucial for the forward planning of the West, hence the intense battles for Benghazi since 2011 and the efforts to manipulate the youths by the Central Intelligence Agency. Now, in the midst of the war in Gaza and Syria there is increased attention on the role of Egypt as an ally of Israel in keeping the people of Gaza under lockdown by keeping the Rafa crossing closed. Since the intensified wars against the citizens of Gaza there have been new attacks on the Egyptian border posts in the West. In July, there was a bold attack on the western border post of Egypt where 22 troops including three officers were killed.
UNITED NATIONS AND INTERVENTION AGAIN?
The killing of Libyans who were supposed to be protected has led to calls from within Africa and the nonaligned world for a thorough investigation of the NATO intervention in Libya. Since that call the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has been a silent bystander as hundreds of Libyans are killed and displaced. Now these UN personnel have joined with the other western powers that are being evacuated from Tripoli.
The killing of human rights workers and the killing of activist women of Libya such as former member of the Libyan General National Congress, Fariha Barkawi, and Salwa Bugaighis have brought out statements from western elements that have been destabilizing Libya. Muhammad Abdul Aziz the Libyan Foreign Minister has asked the UN Security Council to send military advisers to bolster state forces guarding ports, airports and other strategic locations. These calls are a manifestation of the complete breakdown of control over violence in Libya. The African Union and the nonaligned bloc within the United Nations will have to make a firmer stand on western militarism in North Africa and Palestine. The peace movements in the West also have a major responsibility to oppose NATO, oppose the deployment of western forces and expand the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel in clear solidarity with the peoples of Palestine.
This month as the world remembers how slowly humanity slipped into the massive bloodletting of World War 1 in 1914, it is worth reminding citizens of the West how the working peoples were manipulated to support the Generals and the Bankers. The peace and social justice movement must popularize the cases against Goldman Sachs, the Blackstone Group, the French bank Société Générale SA, and Tradition Financial Services of Switzerland. Progressive forces ought to follow closely the present case in the London High Court against Goldman Sachs and work to ensure that as a result of the dark markets that the Intercontinental Exchange are involved with, that the corporate elements will face the same demise as their academic spokespersons who had operated through the Monitor Group of Cambridge Massachusetts. \
The peace and social justice forces must intensify their organization at this point so that there can be clarity on the role of General Hifter and the Central intelligence Agency in Libya. Progressive forces cannot accept the packaging of lies and disinformation that sold the war against the people of Libya as part of Responsibility to Protect. Today, the western media is attempting to package the bloody assault on the peoples of Palestine as a defensive war by the hawks in Israel. There is need for broad solidarity by peace and social justice forces internationally so that the current wars end and the west end their support for corrupt bankers and militarists.
* Horace G. Campbell is a Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University. He is the author of Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, Monthly Review Press, 2013.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE AGV Project NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM