News of a rift in the Libyan rebel ranks, as reported in the Washington Post, underscores much about what is wrong with US/NATO intervention in Libya:
“When asked who was commanding the army, one career soldier, Ramzi Ali Mohammad, 31, said, ‘Khalifa Haftar.’
“’No, no,’ said another, Abdel Salam Mohammad Ali, 52, a corporal who has been in the army 32 years and remembers Haftar from the war with Chad. ‘It’s Abdul Fattah Younis.’
“’It’s both, together,’ said Mohammad, adding that he had seen Younis visit the front line on Friday. ‘They’re both commanding officers of the war. It’s one operation room and two minds.’”
A ragtag band of untrained civilians, sprinkled with defectors from the Libyan security forces, who don’t even know who commands them – this is not a recipe for success, to say the least. The Libyan revolution, it seems, isn’t ready for prime time. There have been similar conflicts on the civilian level, with some initial confusion over just who was authorized to make statements on behalf of the “interim” ruling council.
The rebel split is centered around the sudden emergence of Khalifa Haftar, whose last known address was in Falls Church, Virginia, and who has now turned up in Libya as the would-be savior of the revolution. Haftar was one of the young colonels who supported Gadhafi’s 1969 coup against King Idris, whose biography is decidedly murky. The Australian avers:
“Raised in the contested town of Ajdabiya, he was a soldier loyal to Gadaffi and the revolution until he was thrown into a pointless slaughter in the regime’s war in Chad. ‘He pushed me into losing battles, with bad information on the enemy leading to huge losses, and many of my top officers were killed,’ Colonel Haftar said.
“Convicted of planning to overthrow Gadaffi and sentenced to death, he got out and spent 25 years in exile, 21 of them in the US. For most of that time, his wife and 12 children lived under house arrest, stripped of their passports and watched around the clock.”
Watched by whom, and for what? Falls Church isn’t far from the CIA’s Langley headquarters, but then again it seems Col. Haftar’s relationship with the CIA is hardly one of captive to jailer, although perhaps that’s how it started out. Haftar, it turns out, is not exactly a defector from the regime. According to this United Nations report on the rebel movement he led from Chad in the 1990s, Haftar joined the Libyan National Salvation Front, a group set up by the Central Intelligence Agency, “in March 1987, after he was captured in the Chadian war. His goal was to create an army to fight against the Libyan authorities.”
His rebel force “disappeared,” according to the report, ‘with the help of the CIA” after the US-friendly regime in Chad was overthrown, and the next thing anybody knew the Colonel showed up in Falls Church, not a stone’s throw away from his new bosses.
The Benghazi authorities, after initially embracing Haftar, are now distancing themselves from him, saying that he is free to join up with the structure they have already put in place, but the confusion on the ground is clear enough.
This is a potential disaster in the making for the rebels, who are already out-gunned and up against a professional force that shows no sign of cracking. The rift dramatizes, in cameo, the role of the United States government as the underminer of revolutionary movements throughout the region.
In Egypt they sought, at first, to deny what was happening and affirm support for Hosni Mubarak (Biden). The switch to support for Mubarak’s designated successor, head of the secret police, wasn’t much more successful. The pattern repeated itself in Yemen and Bahrain, but in Libya the Americans are prepared: they already have the resources in place to hijack the Benghazi rebellion, and that no doubt motivated in part the decision to intervene. After all, here is Col. Haftar, their Manchurian candidate, an apparent victim of Stockholm Syndrome, all ready to go: the infrastructure was in place. Why not use it?
One can almost hear the conversation around the policy planners conference table as the authors of this disaster-in-the-making cooked up a saleable plan, one that could impress the White House as practical and con the media into thinking it was all happening outside Washington’s control.
The same sort of effort is no doubt already underway in Syria, where the sclerotic Ba’athist dictatorship is so brittle it could snap at any moment. What’s darkly comic is that dictator Bashar al-Assad is probably correct when he talks about a “foreign conspiracy” to overthrow his regime – the problem, for Assad, is that a real revolution is brewing against his despotic rule, and it didn’t originate in Washington.
Western attempts to hijack the Arab Awakening are necessarily limited to those countries – few in number – where Washington isn’t allied with the local tyrant. From the steppes of Central Asia, where US-supported potentates sit atop a growing proportion of the world’s oil supply, to the mouth of the Mediterranean, the American eagle has sheltered dozens of emirs, kings, and presidents-for-life under its overstretched wings. If the US winds up trading Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, and some of the Gulf states for Libya and possibly Syria, that’s a net loss by any accounting.
Hillary Clinton’s State Department, a prime mover behind this war, is determined to reverse this trend. The idea is to turn the crisis into an opportunity for the expansion of US influence, and give the empire a much-needed buttressing. The President, confronted with the full-bore self-righteousness of the “humanitarian” crowd on his left, and amid rising cries of “Who lost Libya?” on his right, realized he was politically boxed in, and retreated from the field. This left the Amazonian troika of the War Party – Hillary, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and National Security Council member Samantha Power – victorious and in control of the policy as it evolves into a long term operation.
I noted early on that, for all its nationwide aspirations, the Libyan insurrection is essentially a secessionist movement, and this has been borne out by the progress of the battle on the ground. After the initial success of the uprising in Benghazi and the eastern part of the country – historically known as Cyrenaica – the push to extend the revolt to the West has largely fizzled out. Indeed, it looked, for a while, as if the rebels were in danger of losing Benghazi: the allied intervention prevented that, at least momentarily, but the continued attempts by the rebels to extend their control to Tripoli and environs – where the Gadhafi regime appears to have support – can only end in disaster.
The media is calling this a “stalemate,” but in reality this east-west divide is deeply rooted in the politics and history of the region. With the spell of the dictator’s invincibility broken, the country has simply reverted to its natural precondition, with political power devolving to the ancient emirates (or kingdoms) of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.
Rather than admit their initial mistake in cobbling together the makeshift “kingdom” of Libya, in 1951, the UN Security Council is determined to compound their error by insisting on the country’s “unity” and “territorial integrity.” An inability to admit error is the hallmark of political elites everywhere, but in the UN we have a special case, one in which unfathomable arrogance combines with bureaucratic inertia to create a recurring cycle of crisis.
The ingredients of a negotiated settlement are all present: the exhaustion of the rebels, the massive defections from the regime, the economic collapse of the oil industry, the death and devastation that are now part of everyday life in Libya. What’s more, the historical context in which all this is occurring suggests the terms of a permanent settlement: the division of the country into east and west. Although the allied powers and the UN would never allow it, in this case the judgment of Solomon should be applied: cut Libya in half, and let the free east serve as an example to the still enslaved west.
Now that the rebels have Western aid and air cover, however, they aren’t about to settle for half a loaf. Emboldened by their overseas sponsors in Washington, London, and Paris, they want the whole thing. A conflict that might have ended in a permanent deadlock and eventually petered out into a cold war scenario will now go on indefinitely.
Just how indefinitely is hard to say, but it’s no longer a matter of “days, not weeks.” When will Congress hold the President accountable, and start enforcing the Constitution? That’s another column altogether, but the short answer is: don’t hold your breath.