The Struggle to Control Libya’s Military Future
The struggle for control over Libya’s military establishment is on amid concerns that Western powers want to establish a major NATO base in the country under the guise of fighting ‘terrorism’.
The one-month deadline Libya’s Transitional National Council (NTC) had set for itself to form an interim government ended on Sunday.
If the NTC can reach an agreement with rebel field commanders over the formation of the new government, Libyans would have surpassed the first major hurdle on the path to democracy.
However, there are significant divisions behind this facade of agreement between two contending parties.
One current within the council is close to the United States and is seen to be carrying out Washington’s bidding in the state building process that Libya is currently going through.
Another group seeks to maintain good relations with the West, while retaining some level of independence by minimizing interference from those powers who contributed to the toppling of the former regime.
The latter group can be described as patriotic, consisting of nationalists, leftists, Islamists, and independents. They backed the nomination of Abdel Rahim al-Keib for prime minister and therefore succeeded in winning the first round with the opposing faction.
Al-Keib is a businessman and a moderate technocrat. It seems that he is well regarded by both the majority of political parties within Libya and some of Tripoli’s key foreign backers.
However, the pro-US faction managed to win the second round after Khalifa Haftar was chosen as head of the Libyan National Army, which is in the process of being reactivated.
Haftar, who is known to be a reliable Washington ally, used to be an officer in Gaddafi’s army until he was discharged during Libya’s war with Chad in the late 1980s.
Haftar then broke with Gaddafi and joined the opposition, establishing the “National Army” during his captivity in Chad. He then went on to live in the US before returning to Libya and joining the ranks of the transitional council’s forces in the wake of the uprising last February.
Haftar comes from the al-Furjan tribe, one of the biggest in Libya, with a strong presence in Sirte. He fought for leadership of the rebel army, but was initially sidelined by the late general Abdel Fattah Younes.
Younis had a nationalist orientation; he belonged to the al-Obeidat tribe that dominates Benghazi.
Younes was assassinated last July. Though his death was attributed to Islamists, the identity of his assassins is yet to be revealed. This opened the way for Haftar to take over leadership of the armed forces.
According to numerous reports, Haftar is a longtime CIA agent, and it was the American intelligence agency that dispatched him to Libya during the insurrection to represent Washington’s interests in the TNC.
If Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, becomes the defense minister, the relationship between the ministry of defense and the leadership of the army will not be an easy one, to say the least.
The first sign of tensions between the two men surfaced a few days ago during a meeting held to designate the next head of the Libyan army. The meeting fell apart after rebels objected to the participation of a large number of former army officers.
The very next day, about 150 military officers resolved the matter in a meeting in the city of al-Baida, choosing Haftar to fill the post.
Many analysts speculate that the US and the Europeans are hoping the new Libyan army will play a key role in fighting so-called Islamic terrorism in the Sahel region.
Some even fear that the ground is being prepared for the establishment of a NATO base on Libyan territory under the pretext of fighting ‘terrorism’ in North Africa.
To this end, a number of intelligence reports have been circulated in Western media about the disappearance of large quantities of dangerous weapons and anti-aircraft missiles from Libyan army ammunition stores. The reports suggested that they may have fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda groups operating in Mali, Algeria, and Niger.
Last Wednesday, at a meeting in Algeria of the Working Group of Capacity-Building in the Sahel, US counter-terrorism coordinator Ambassador Daniel Benjamin said, “the terrorist threat is becoming more and more complex with some of the changes that the region is witnessing. This is particularly the case in the neighboring country of Libya.”
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika addressed these concerns in Doha last week in a meeting with TNC Chairman Mustapha Abdul Jalil. Both leaders are worried that the missing weapons issue might be exploited by the West to establish a long-term military base in Libya.