Who is Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are attacking Tripoli, Libya?

Libya is like "'Game of Thrones' where every house is ruled by Joffrey," one expert said.
Image: Libyan Strongman Khalifa Haftar salutes during a military parade in the eastern city of Benghazi
Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar at a military parade in the eastern city of Benghazi.Abdullah Doma / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Alexander Smith

Libya's latest upheaval comes at the hands of a mustachioed military strongman who lived in the U.S. for 20 years, has past links with the CIA, and recently spoke on the phone with President Donald Trump about their "shared vision" for the country.

The North African nation has been divided, lawless and verging on becoming a failed state ever since NATO intervention, including American airstrikes, helped topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Two rival governments continue to claim power in a country destabilized by warring militias and Islamist fighters.

Amid this chaos, experienced warlord Khalifa Haftar earlier this month launched an offensive on the capital, Tripoli, where the internationally recognized government is based.

It is the latest development in a bewilderingly complex crisis, where several groups are vying for control but with little sign of resolution.

"A morally bankrupt elite is engaged in a zero-sum game for absolute power," said Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Think 'Game of Thrones' where every house is ruled by Joffrey," he added, referring to Joffrey Baratheon, the young, tyrannical king in HBO's fantasy drama.

What's it like on the ground?

Three weeks ago, Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army launched its offensive on Tripoli. However, what appeared to be an attempt at a swift power grab has since descended into bloody street fighting, with hundreds of people killed and 35,000 forced to flee their homes.

Four United Nations agencies have launched a rapid emergency response to try to deal with the crisis.

"Instead of pushing into Tripoli with a small force, followed by anticipated side-switching to his side, Haftar has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe in Libya's capital," said Inga Kristina Trauthig, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London.

"The initial aim of a blitzkrieg or quick takeover of Tripoli has failed," she said.

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The capital is currently held by the Government of National Accord, which is backed by the U.N. and, officially at least, the U.S. as well.

The U.S. has temporarily withdrawn some of its forces, who are based in Libya helping local troops combat the Islamic State group and al Qaeda militants, as well as protecting diplomatic facilities.

The battle for Tripoli has descended into grinding, house-to-house fighting, with both sides gaining and losing territory in different areas along the front line.

Who is Haftar?

The commander was a cadet in Gadhafi's 1969 coup that deposed King Idris al-Sanusi.

The dictator made him a commanding officer in the 1980s, but Haftar soon turned against his own leader, calling for a coup and eventually having to be rescued by the CIA.

He lived in Virginia for 20 years, where, according to experts, his proximity to Langley suggested a continued relationship with the CIA. He gained U.S. citizenship before returning to his homeland just before Gadhafi fell in 2011.

The general "has fought with and against nearly every significant faction in the country's conflicts," according to a detailed New Yorker profile of him in 2015. This has given him "a reputation for unrivaled military experience and for a highly flexible sense of personal allegiance," it said.

A Libyan woman hits a portrait of Khalifa Haftar with a shoe during a demonstration in Tripoli's Martyrs Square on April 19.Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images file

Today, Haftar is allied with Libya's rival Parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk.

This administration is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and reportedly Saudi Arabia. It does not recognize the Tripoli government, which was formed by a political agreement in 2015.

Haftar remains a controversial figure, with many fearing he would become a second Gadhafi. Perhaps outlining his vision for the future, the general said last year that after four decades of dictatorship Libya may not be ready for democracy.

"Haftar has an authoritarian agenda and military understanding of politics," Trauthig said. "He has perpetually disregarded the rule of law and refused to subordinate himself entirely to a political authority."

Why is this happening now?

Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa. It is also a jumping-off point for thousands of migrants making the deadly journey across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe.

The timing of Haftar's offensive does not seem coincidental. It came while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in Tripoli to prepare for a national reconciliation conference that aimed to bring together Libya's rival groups.

Fighters loyal to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord get into position during clashes with Khalifa Haftar's forces last week.Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images

Guterres' aides thought Haftar supported the efforts, but the general's push toward the capital appears timed at undermining the process, according to experts.

The commander often says he seeks to eradicate Islamist extremist militias in Tripoli and elsewhere, but his detractors say his record on actually cracking down on these elements is patchy at best.

These critics fear he seeks to impose a strongman-style leadership in the mold of Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He also appears close to Russia, with one of his high-ranking aides showing up at an international security conference in Moscow last week.

These international backers risk turning Libya into another proxy war on the scale of Syria, according to Megerisi, at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"One simple takeaway from the current situation is that this is bigger than just Libya," he said. "The resulting chaos from Haftar's escapades has now attracted opportunistic attention from Moscow and President Trump."

After the fallout of the 2011 Arab Spring, Haftar has been able to push the "message that Arab states are better off under the boot of a strongman," Megerisi added.

Washington's official position had been to support the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, but a phone call between Trump and Haftar two weeks ago raised serious questions.

Trump referred to the renegade general as "field marshal" and praised his "significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources," according to a White House statement.

"The two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system," it said.

Reuters contributed.