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The Mad Dog of the Middle East

The ‘mad dog of the Middle East’, as Ronald Reagan once called Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is on the brink of achieving his life’s ambition: becoming the dictator of Libya. He’s a rather old mad dog by now (75), but after a two-month siege his troops are starting to break through the defences of the country’s capital, Tripoli.

As a young officer, Haftar took part in the coup that overthrew the Libyan king and brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, and he stayed loyal to the new dictator for two decades. But he was captured during Libya’s lost war with Chad in 1987, and bought his freedom by switching sides and going to work for the US Central Intelligence Agency.

When Haftar’s efforts to overthrow Gaddafi on behalf of the CIA failed, it resettled him in the United States in 1990. He spent the next twenty years quietly in Virginia, acquiring American citizenship along the way – but then came the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010-11, and suddenly he was back in play.

He had little part in overthrowing Gaddafi, which was mainly achieved by NATO bombers. But the multifarious Libyan militias, which were mainly colourful extras playing supporting roles during the bombing campaign, took centre stage when Gaddafi was finally killed, because NATO couldn’t or wouldn’t take responsibility for putting Libya back together after the war.

Haftar’s opportunity came in eastern Libya (Cyrenaica), where Islamist militias had seized control of the regional capital, Benghazi, and murdered the US ambassador in 2012. He created a militia, the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), that set about the lengthy task of reconquering Cyrenaica. The centre of Benghazi was destroyed by artillery fire in the process, but by 2017 the job was done.

Who paid for all this? Haftar’s financial arrangements are murky, to say the least, but his backers would certainly include France, which has a large investment in Libyan oil. Also Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, all of which like dictators and hate Islamist radicals. And, since early 2017, the United States as well.

Haftar’s campaign in the east completely ignored the new, ‘internationally recognised’ government that the United Nations cobbled together in late 2015. It’s not elected, it controls nothing outside of the city of Tripoli, and in fact it doesn’t control much of the city either. It’s the local militias, most of them Islamist, who actually run things.

That’s Haftar’s main excuse for trying to capture Tripoli. He just wants to run the country, but his Saudi, Egyptian, Russian and American backers (and don’t forget the United Arab Emirates) are all paranoid about Islamists under the bed, so he highlights that theme to keep them happy.

The Islamist militias of Tripoli, Misrata and the rest of western Libya are not all religious fanatics and secret members of al-Qaeda. They’re mostly just local boys with guns who are enjoying the ride, and need some sort of ideological justification for behaving badly. But if the stupid foreigners think they are a real menace, Haftar will take their money.

He spent last year conquering the desert south of the country, where most of the oil is, and two months ago he moved his forces back north and attacked Tripoli. The local militias rallied to the defence of the ‘internationally recognised’ government (and of their own local protection rackets), and for a while it looked like a stalemate.

In mid-April Donald Trump telephoned Haftar to thank him for his efforts to “combat terrorism and secure Libya’s oil.” More useful were the Russian-made cargo planes flying in to Haftar’s Libyan bases from Egypt, Jordan and Israel bearing – well, who knows? Maybe dates, olives and halva. Or maybe something more useful.

And now, after almost two months of deadlock, the front has started to move. Haftar’s LNA is reported to be in the eastern and southern suburbs of Tripoli and near the international airport. One LNA spearhead is allegedly in Salah al-Deen, only a few kilometres from the city centre.

Haftar’s offensive may yet fizzle out. He calls himself a field marshal, but the highest rank he ever held while actually in combat command of troops was colonel, and he didn’t do very well with that. On the other hand, the people he’s fighting aren’t exactly military geniuses either, so he could win. What would that mean?

It would mean a new Libyan dictatorship, of course, but it would also mean comparative peace in Libya and maybe an opportunity to rebuild the reasonably competent welfare state that has been destroyed in the past decade. And since Haftar is already 75, he’s not going to match Gaddafi’s 42 years in power.

When all the options are bad, you must choose the least bad, and maybe Haftar is it. And think how many people would rejoice in his victory: President Donald Trump, President Vladimir Putin, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, President (and ex-General) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, President Emmanuel Macron….

If all those wise men like it, who are we to say otherwise?
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“He spent…useful”)

The Traditions of the Sea and the EU

Late last year, the governments of the European Union, having refused to share the cost of a very successful operation called Mare Nostrum in which the Italian Navy rescued tens of thousands of refugees from sinking boats in the Mediterranean, replaced it with a much smaller operation called Operation Triton. Its purpose (though they didn’t put it exactly that way) was NOT to rescue the refugees, because then they ended up in the European Union.

Triton was a “coastguard” operation, with a third of the budget of Mare Nostrum and orders only to patrol Italian and Maltese coastal waters. They could save any boatloads of refugees that made it that far, but they were not to do “search and rescue” operations off the Libyan coast, which is where most of the overloaded boats actually founder.

Inevitably, the death toll from drownings in the first five months of this year was thirty times higher than in the same period last year: at least 1,750 human beings. The losses were so shocking that an emergency EU meeting in late April boosted Triton’s budget back up to the level of Mare Nostrum – but they didn’t change its “mission”. It was still only supposed to operate in EU coastal waters.

But then something odd happened. Last weekend, ships from the Italian, British, German and Irish navies rescued more than 4,000 people in two days – the vast majority of them just off the Libyan coast. The EU has not condemned the operation, but it wasn’t really the EU’s plan. What drove it was the sheer reluctance of the navies to stand by and let people drown.

The European politicians face a huge demand from their electorates to stop the seemingly endless flow of “migrants” (the preferred term for refugees, since it elicits less sympathy) across the Mediterranean. 170,000 people made it across last year, and it could be double that number this year unless lots and lots of them drown. But the voters (or most of them) don’t want to hear about that, and most of the politicians are not very brave.

So the politicians did what the voters wanted. At some level they must have understood the consequences of stopping the search-and-rescue operation, but they found ways of lying to themselves. First of all they said that all these life-saving operations were just encouraging more people to risk the crossing. Stop saving them, and they won’t come.

Ridiculous: these are desperate people who have already faced many big risks to get as far as Libya. They kept coming, and the horrendous death-toll this spring got the media so excited that the politicians had to do something – but not, of course, anything that would actually result in more people arriving in Europe. So they gave more money to Operation Triton, but they still didn’t give it a life-saving role.

Instead, they came up with some nonsense about saving the refugees from drowning by destroying the people-smugglers’ boats on the shores of Libya before they went to sea. It’s the “new slave trade,” and we’re just saving the refugees from themselves. Of course, the EU hasn’t actually destroyed any boats (which would be an act of war against Libya).

What they didn’t reckon with was their own navies, who come at this from a very different angle. The sailors don’t have to worry about the voters, and on the whole they are not terribly fond of the politicians, but they certainly do know about the sea. And one of the oldest traditions of the sea is that you do not leave people to drown.

Everybody who has spent much time at sea knows that it is an intrinsically hostile environment. Alone and unsupported by technology (including flotation gear), you will survive in the water for a matter of minutes, or at most, if you are very fit and lucky, for an hour or two. So when you see somebody in the water, you do everything you can to save them – because another time, it could be you.

When I was in the navy we were once first on the scene of a collision in which a tanker had exploded in flames. There was little chance of survivors, as oil had spilled and the sea was on fire around the stricken ship, but we searched all night and into the next day anyway. Nobody questioned why we were doing it, nobody even discussed it. There is no higher priority in a peacetime navy.

I was not on the warships attached to Operation Triton to overhear the conversations of the people on the bridge, but I am sure that they were outraged by their orders. So they gradually pushed out beyond the appointed bounds of Operation Triton to the places where the people were actually dying, and none of the politicians dared to expose themselves as heartless bastards by telling them to come back.

Eventually it has become the new de facto policy of the European Union – just like the old Mare Nostrum policy, before the European governments got at it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Instead…Libya”; and “When…navy”)

NOTE: If you think that “heartless bastards” will upset your readers, you may substitute “gutless cowards”, or even “craven opportunists”.

Egypt Under Sisi

The “Islamic State” franchise in Libya, which is emerging as the main winner in that country’s chaotic civil war, published a video on Sunday showing 21 Egyptian men in orange overalls being forced to the ground and beheaded. The video made it clear that they were being killed for being Christian, “people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church.”

Within hours the Egyptian air force responded with raids on IS camps and training sites in Derna, the group’s headquarters in eastern Libya. Announcing the safe return of all the aircraft, the Egyptian military authorities declared: “Let those far and near know that Egyptians have a shield that protects them.” But it didn’t really protect them, did it?

Okay, that’s not fair. Everybody knows that you can’t protect people once they fall into the hands of the jihadi head-choppers. An air force is a particularly unsuitable tool for that job, nor can anyone stop unemployed Egyptian labourers, including members of the Christian minority, from seeking work even in war-torn Libya. Most of the victims came from a dirt-poor Christian village in Upper Egypt, and they had to feed their families somehow.

So the Islamic State fanatics murdered them because killing Christians attracts recruits from a certain demographic. Then the Egyptian air force flailed out aimlessly, and the public relations boys wrote the usual guff about the air force being a shield for the people. So far, so tediously normal – but the whole event also serves the narrative of the Egyptian military regime.

We’re not supposed to call it a military regime. The military coup (with substantial popular support) that overthrew the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013 was allegedly just a brief detour from democracy. But the commander of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ended up as president, and the promised parliamentary elections have still not happened.

Why not? The main excuse Egyptians are offered is that the government is too busy fighting a huge terrorist threat. And don’t mention that the terrorism is largely the regime’s own fault, or that the threat is not so big that normal political life must be suspended. People who say that have featured prominently among the 40,000 who have been arrested since July 2013. (16,000 are still in prison.)

What happened in Egypt twenty months ago was a betrayal of the democratic revolution of February 2011, when peaceful demonstrators forced former general Hosni Mubarak out after thirty years as president. Few of the urban, relatively well educated revolutionaries on Tahrir Square supported the Muslim Brotherhood, but they should not have been surprised when it won the first free election.

Ninety percent of Egyptians are Muslims, and most of them are deeply conservative rural people. They remembered that the Muslim Brotherhood had been Egypt’s main opposition party during the decades of dictatorship. They shared many of its values, and many of them had benefited from its social programmes for the poor.

They reckoned the Brothers deserved the first go in power, and gave it their votes. More secular people were appalled when the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated constituent assembly amended the constitution to give it more religious content, although the changes were not actually all that extreme. And they forgot that in a democracy, you can change the government by voting it out. You just have to wait for the next election.

Victory in the first post-revolution election was a poisoned apple for the Muslim Brotherhood. Every day its behaviour in power was alienating more people. The economy was a wreck (and still is). But the Brotherhood was not making irreversible changes in Egypt, so the right strategy was to wait it out, and then vote it out.

Instead, the naive and impatient revolutionaries made an alliance with the army to drive the elected government from power. Did they think that the army, despite sixty years of military dictators in Egypt, was a secret ally of democracy? General Sisi accepted their support, took over the government in 2013, and put President Morsi in jail. Shortly afterwards, he began putting the revolutionaries in jail too.

But Sisi needs some excuse for destroying Egypt’s democratic revolution, and the excuse is terrorism, the bigger the better. He declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, and when tens of thousands of non-violent supporters of the Brotherhood established a protest camp in Rabaa Square in Cairo he cleared it by force, killing at least 627 people by the government’s own count.

Human Rights Watch has documented at least 817 deaths, and suspects there were more than a thousand. It was, said an HRW report last August, a premeditated assault equal to or worse than the massacre of Chinese protesters on Tienanmen Square in Beijing in 1989. The purpose, as in 1989, was to cow the population into submission, and it is working in Egypt as well as it did in China.

Terrorism, real and imaginary, helps to distract attention at home and abroad from what actually happened in Egypt. Even before the ghastly slaughter of innocent Egyptians in Libya on Sunday, the US Congress had put military aid to Egypt back into this year’s budget proposal.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“Victory…out”; and “Human…China”)

Two New “Islamic States”

A coalition of imams and organisations representing British Muslims has written Prime Minister David Cameron asking him to stop using the phrase “Islamic State”when talking about the new country carved out of Iraq and Syria by Islamist terrorists. That’s what Abu Baqr al Baghdadi, who has proclaimed himself “the caliph of all Muslims and the prince of the believers,” calls his newly conquered territory, but it’s giving ordinary Muslims a bad name.

The British Muslim leaders declared that “the media, civic society and governments should refuse to legitimise these ludicrous caliphate fantasies by accepting or propagating this name. We propose that “UnIslamic State” (UIS) could be an accurate and fair alternate name to describe this group and its agenda – and we will begin to call it that.”

Good luck with that. But meanwhile two more “UnIslamic States” are being created right now, on Libyan and Nigerian territory: same black flags, same fanaticism and cruelty, even the same ski masks. (It’s a fashion statement.)

The city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in northeastern Nigeria, has more than two million people. It is surrounded by the forces of Boko Haram – the name roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden” – and most of the rest of Borno has already fallen under their rule. In fact, the whole north-eastern corner of Nigeria is passing out of the government’s control.

“At this very moment,” Alhaji Baba Ahmad Jidda, the secretary to the Borno state government, told The Independent newspaper last week, “most parts of Borno state are being occupied by Boko Haram insurgents. Government presence and administration is minimal, with economic, commercial and social services totally subdued. Schools and clinics remain closed.”

Boko Haram’s ultimate goal was the imposition of an Islamic state in Nigeria ever since it began active operations in 2009. It was in touch with al-Qaeda from the start, and later with the jihadi groups in Syria that subsequently turned into ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and finally into the “Islamic State” that now spans those two countries.

Only the northern half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, so that was where Boko Haram’s murders and abductions were concentrated, although it also carried out terrorist bombings in the Christian parts of the country. 3,600 people were killed in these attacks in the four years to 2013, but then there was a major acceleration: 2,000 more people have been killed in just the first half of this year.

From about mid-July, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau also changed tactics: instead of hit-and-run raids, he started to take and hold territory. In August, after his fighters captured the town of Gwoza in Borno, he released a video declaring that the area was “now part of the Islamic Caliphate.” He now rules over about three million people in northeastern Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon.

The Nigerian army rarely stands up to Boko Haram’s fighters. Like the Iraqi army, which ran from far smaller numbers of ISIS troops, it is corrupt and badly equipped, but it is also deeply penetrated by Boko Haram sympathisers: last June fifteen senior military officers were found guilty by court martial of passing arms and information to Boko Haram. So Abubakar Shekau may end up ruling much of northern Nigeria.

Libya is considerably further down the same track. A civil war broke out between the various militias left over from the 2011 campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator, shortly after the June election that might – just might – have produced a government that would try to disarm those militias. It has got so bad that almost a third of the Libya’s population, 1.8 million people, has fled the country, mostly seeking shelter in Tunisia.

The real divisions between these warring militias are regional and tribal, but a number of them have adopted extreme Islamist ideologies, partly because it guarantees a flow of arms and money from certain governments in the Gulf. These Islamist militias have emerged as the winners both in the savage fighting in western Libya around the capital, Tripoli, and also in the other major city, Benghazi, in the east.

In fact, Islamist militias with ISIS-style ideologies now control every city along the Libyan coast except Tobruk, a short distance from the Egyptian border. That is where the new parliament elected in June has taken refuge, and the parliament’s members are living on a hired Greek car ferry that is serving as a floating hotel. The front line starts just west of town – and the next town along the coast, Derna, has been declared an Islamic caliphate.

A lot of this is just ideological fashion, of course. The various “caliphates” are in touch with one another, after a fashion, but there is no master plan. However, the results are truly nasty both in Nigeria and in Libya – and the risk of over-reaction by those who feel threatened by these developments, especially in the West, is quite large.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9.  (“At…closed”; and “The Nigerian…Nigeria”)