Since the Arab Spring and anti-Ghaddafi uprising on the streets of Benghazi on 14th February 2011, Libyans have known little or no respite from violence. In the battles to topple Muammar Ghaddafi his enormous ‘Armory of Islam’ was looted, and arms spread both inside Libya and to neighbouring countries. In the vacuum in Libya left by his demise, power shifted substantially into the hands of local war lords, tribal elders, and heavily armed jihadist led militias.

The absence of an independent judiciary, a respected and well-trained police force and an incorruptible and well-paid civil service led to the breakdown of civil society. Democratic elections were held but the upshot was two rival governments neither of which were able to govern.

In Libya’s eastern cities of Benghazi and Derna, extreme Islamist militias gained control and exercised it with ruthless zealotry. A Libyan army officer of considerable experience called Khalifa Haftar raised an army and began the long and brutal business of urban warfare to dislodge them. He was successful and launched his army onto Tripoli where armed militias harassed the internationally recognised government. His attack failed and he retreated behind a ceasefire line which had long marked the border between East and West Libya. His ‘Strong Man’ reputation suffered, and a fragile cease fire was established.

Why did he fail? The question is addressed in War Lord, but one important reason may be found in the opportunism of President Erdogan of Turkey who saw Haftar’s logistical weakness and the Tripoli government’s peril and exploited both to establish a foothold in the old Ottoman province of Tripolitania. Erdogan’s foreign policy, which some see as an attempt to establish a pale shadow of the old Ottoman Empire, has antagonised many – notably Egypt’s President Sisi.

There are numerous academic papers and books which seek to describe and explain Libya’s dilemma, but ‘War Lord’ has its origins on my eight years of living and working in Libya. One experience stands out. Sometime in 1958 I was a Duty Air Movements Officer at an R.A.F staging post some miles out of Tripoli, waiting for an aircraft from Leopoldville and reading John Gunther’s book ‘Inside Africa’. The aircraft arrived. It was a Royal Canadian Air Force transport aircraft in the service of the United Nations enroute from Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo to Pisa in Italy. Its captain sought me out and asked me to see that the aircraft was given a ‘quick turnaround’ as there were human remains on board which were decomposing in the extreme heat. Aboard the aircraft I found three packing crates over which United Nations Flags were draped. They contained the bodies of three nuns killed by rioters rebelling against their Belgian colonial masters. This awful catspaw heralded numerous aircraft carrying Belgian refugees when the Congo erupted into widespread violence. I am often assailed by the message of futility and brutality those flag draped packing crates articulated so eloquently on a very hot day near Tripoli. Especially so when trying to understand why Libya has been riven by religious extremism, gratuitous violence, and corruption.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar receives the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, at his headquarters in Benghazi on 16 January 2020. Haftar’s self-discipline is clearly evident. (DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo)

Thus, I wrote at length in ‘War Lord’ about the Italians, who established colonies in Libya between 1911 and 1943, and were said by the historian Emilio Gentile to have caused the death of 50,000 Libyans whilst suppressing resistance to their rule. The Italians set notable precedents in colonial brutality.

As 2021 ended elections for a new Libyan government were proposed. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar holds some of the ace cards should he stand as a presidential candidate. On 17th October 2017 he told a meeting of his army commanders in Benghazi that the size of Libya is 1,760,000 square kilometres and that his Libyan National Army controls all but 30,000 square kilometres of it. But projecting military power in such a huge country is not easy. The terrain is notably inhospitable, there are limits to the range of even modern war planes, and logistics are a nightmare. Even once you have won it, defending such a large territory is difficult.  So how did Haftar do it?

He has cobbled together widely separate ethnic and religious factions into a functioning army. He has insisted on training his troops thoroughly. He delegates well and has a good chief of staff. He has demonstrated tenacity, self-discipline, good public relations especially with tribal leaders, notable propaganda skills, and decisive ruthlessness. Haftar is not a typical military leader, but then the war he was fighting was not a typical war. Libya is a crucible of tribal loyalties, religious fervour, ethnic differences, unresolved disputes, access to great oil reserves and the cause of international tensions.

Haftar’s wars tested the advances in modern warfare. He, and his enemies, used new and better drones, intensive propaganda, and trained mercenaries. It was not just a civil war. With the intervention of Turkey, Qatar, and the UAE amongst others, it became a proxy war and a lesson for those who would intervene in the affairs of other nations without due diligence.

‘War Lord’ is not a conventional biography of Khalifa Haftar but by analysing his problems and his leadership it allows us to explore not only Libya’s recent history but about Islamic fundamentalism, Gaddafi’s invasion of Chad, Ronald Regan’s obsession with Muammar Ghaddafi, and NATO’s intervention in Libya’s affairs in 2011.

Will Libya divide under the strain or use its great resources of oil and fossil water to shield the Sahel from the extremes of climate change, mass migration and bitter conflict. As 2021 draws to a close Libyans hope to hold elections and form a government with a clear and democratic mandate. Field Marshall Haftar is an experienced but divisive military leader. Perhaps that is why his enemies call him a War Lord. Should he offer himself for election as Libya’s President he will pay for this trait. Or he could win and turn Libya into a beacon of good government.

John Oakes book War Lord: Khalifa Haftar and the Future of Libya is available for purchase now.