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Libya After Qaddafi: The Unstable Terrorist Haven That America Has Mostly Forgotten

Libya's two largest cities are under the control of Islamist militias. With its parliament taking refuge elsewhere, the country seems to have outsourced the fightto a septuagenarian general a track-record of turning-coat.

The post Libya After Qaddafi: The Unstable Terrorist Haven That America Has Mostly Forgotten appeared first on ThinkProgress.

Mideast Libya

CREDIT: AP

Three years ago, rebel fighters killed Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi — an event that captured the world’s attention and was billed as a new day for the North African nation.

“This marks the end of a long and painful chapter for the people of Libya,” President Barack Obama said from the White House Rose Garden on the day of Qaddafi’s death. “[They] now have the opportunity to determine their own destiny in a new and democratic Libya.”

But charting that new, democratic destiny after the death of an erratic dictator – in addition to more than 30,000 Libyan people who were killed in what became a six-month long civil war has not been easy. In fact, it’s left Libya teetering on the brink of war against Islamist militants – one that neither the country’s government or Western nations seem inclined to fight. Not doing so might leave the oil-rich nation to the designs of increasingly powerful – and ambitious – militants. A fate that may even prove worse than the brutal, 42-year long regime Libyans fought so hard to themselves of.

Violence still flares up in frequent battles across the country, though now the opposing sides are largely government-backed forces and Islamist fundamentalist militants. Its instability has made Libya a “haven for itinerant militants” including Ansar al-Shariah, the militant Islamist group responsible for the October 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and inflamed partisan debate in the U.S.

Lawlessness reigned supreme at the time of that attack as Libyans struggled to forge a new form of government just after the country’s first ever democratic elections in the summer of 2012. It took just a month for the first prime minister was forced to stand down after failing to win parliamentary approval for his proposed cabinet. The next was ousted after failing to prevent a North Korean oil tanker from loading at a militia-controlled port. Voters had initially been emboldened by their newfound freedom, but by the time the second elections came up in 2014, however, many Libyans who had risked their lives to overthrow Qaddafi felt disillusioned by their political options and only half as many even registered to vote. For a time, Libya seemed so ill-at-ease with democracy that the current prime minister’s administration even proposed a return to monarchical rule.

The innstability swelled into violence again in June. Islamist factions fared poorly in parliamentary elections, and the militias that backed them launched a campaign which ultimately gave them control of the country’s two biggest cities: Tripoli and Benghazi. Unable to wrest the cities back from the militias, democratically-elected officials were forced to move their seat of power to the eastern city of Tobruk.

More than 50 have been killed in Benghazi since forces believed to be backed by the government launched a campaign to “liberate” the city from a coalition of Islamist militias on Wednesday. The presidents of Egypt and Sudan agreed on Sunday to support the Libyan military in this fight against Islamist militias. Many suspect that Egypt has already been secretly involved in the fight along with the United Arab Emirates. Their covert airstrikes over Benghazi have drawn scorn from the U.S. and its key European allies. Last week, two Egyptian officials said that their country’s warplanes were involved in bombing Benghazi – a claim that a spokesperson for the Egyptian presidency denied.

The Libyan-government’s military campaign is no less difficult to pin down than foreign involvement. The fight’s largely led by a former Libyan general Khalifa Haftar who seems to have only tacit approval from elected officials. For the last five months, he’s culled support from sympathetic Libyan air force units to back his “Operation Dignity” campaign to push militants out of Benghazi.

Haftar became a part of Qaddafi’s top brass after helping him overthrow the country’s monarchy in 1969. He then headed up a rebel group and sought refuge in the U.S. before returning to Libya help topple the dictator. Then in 2011, Haftar picked up arms against Islamist rebels who helped bring about Libya’s revolution. This series of about-faces has made some suggest that Haftar as a politically-ambitious opportunist – drawing comparisons to Egypt’s former military chief-turned-president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. That only makes the claims of Egypt’s dubious involvement with Haftar’s military campaign more vexing.

“As Mr. Sisi did after ousting President Mohammed Morsi last July, [General] Haftar has denied harboring any political ambitions,” the BBC’s Mohamed Madi notes. “But in light of recent events, it is wise to assume that he will continue to play a central role in Libya for the considerable future.”

As Mohamed Eljarh reports for Foreign Policy, elected officials in Libya seem wary of Haftar even if they seem to have offered him some sort of approval of his efforts to push Islamist militants out of Benghazi. Last week, he launched “Operation Benghazi” — a renewed campaign to fight for the country’s second city.

“General Haftar’s announcement came as an embarrassment to both the Libyan government and the recently elected parliament… Members of parliament I spoke with today declined to endorse Haftar’s action and instead opted for vague statements of support for the people of Benghazi and the army. It remains unclear if this recent military offensive was authorized by the army’s chief of staff and if there was any coordination between him and Haftar.”

The complexities don’t end there, either.

In a joint statement issued on Saturday, the governments of France, Italy, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. said “there is no military solution to the Libyan crisis.”

“We consider that Libya’s security challenges and the fight against terrorist organizations can only be sustainably addressed by regular armed forces under the control of a central authority which is accountable to a democratic and inclusive parliament.” The statement continues, in language which suggests that the U.S. and its allies want to leave Libya to fight its own fight.

American officials seem especially unwilling to reengage in Libya after ending a seven-month long air campaign there in 2011 and losing American lives – and taking serious political heat – for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

The Department of Defense committed to sending up to 8,000 military trainers to the country last year, but still has not done so because, as assistant secretary Derek Chollet put it, “Libya’s political turmoil and a deteriorating security situation … make it difficult to have the necessary U.S. personnel on the ground in Tripoli to execute this program.”

The U.S. and its allies now actively engaged airstrikes over Iraq and Syria to thwart the Islamist militant group which calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS), leaving Libya to fend for itself — with the help of some fast friends.

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