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Monthly Archives: May 2020

Wild and Whacky Military Adventurers Part 6

Ibrahim Moiz, rights reserved

31 May 2020

I had intended, again, to focus on less trodden lands this month, but somehow the deadline crept up on me and I had to quickly write on lands well-trod. The keen-eyed reader will note, perhaps with a touch of chagrin, that I have grouped the Kashmiri commander under Pakistan and the Palestinian commander under Syria. This is not a comment on whether or not these putative occupied lands should be part of these neighbouring states, which has often been the source of controversy but on which I cannot venture an opinion; given, however, that they have been occupied throughout the postcolonial period by loathsome regimes, I’ve decided to group them under the nearest kin-country of any size. I begin and end with the Name of Allah, in whose Hand lies total power, and with prayers that he lifts the malady that has plagued the world without further casualties.

Abdul-Majeed Dar. Kashmir/Pakistan*. The decades-long occupation of Kashmir by India and the insurgency that especially dominated the 1990s prompted a number of international observers, usually heavily influenced by New Delhi, to refer to the conflict’s Kashmiri rebels in ideologically absolutist terms – between hardliners and moderates, between nationalists and “jihadists”, and so forth. Most such analyses have been puerile, partly because they focused only on one side of the conflict irrespective of the overarching conditions that produced different responses from the Kashmiri militants. One key example is the career of Abdul-Majeed Dar, the military commander of the best-organized Hizbul-Mujahideen insurgent group, ended with an unexpected attempt at negotiation. Having been the insurgent’s insurgent through his career, his murder shortly after initiating an unreciprocated dialogue with Indian authorities enabled them to portray him posthumously as a dove whose sane capitulationism had been cut mercilessly short by the “hardliners” with whom he had spent his career. In fact, Abdul-Majeed’s decisions, while certainly controversial among the Kashmiri insurgency, reflected the peculiar dynamics of the conflict in the early 2000s.

The war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in the late 1940s had a profound effect on both that picturesque region and relations between the two subcontinental neighbours. It resulted in the partition of Kashmir; the largely autonomous western Azad Kashmir came under Pakistani purview based at Muzaffarabad, while the eastern Jammu and Kashmir region came under Indian rule at Srinagar. In both cases Kashmiri leaders who had taken one side or other in the war dominated the local politics, though at least in the 1950s both New Delhi and Islamabad’s ministerial liaisons to these Kashmiri governments flexed their authority over these regional premiers on several occasions. India’s failure to implement a long-promised referendum for Kashmir’s autonomy, however, helped make New Delhi’s grip far more resented, however. Though Pakistani rulers occasionally intruded in Azad Kashmir, this was usually a corollorary to insecure centre-periphery tensions throughout Pakistan.

By contrast Jammu and Kashmir was treated as a vassaldom by an India that clearly had no intention of submitting to the long-promised referendum. The most notable victim-turned-beneficiary of this vassaldom was Sheikh Abdullah, a popular activist leader since the colonial period who had become premier in Srinagar until his imprisonment, on blatantly contrived charges of sedition, by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in summer 1953. Released after eleven years, he spent the next eleven years canvassing support – in Pakistan and several Muslim countries – for support of Kashmiri autonomy. In the process he hobnobbed with Zulfikar Bhutto, then Pakistan’s hawkish foreign minister, but also avoided the more militant separatism favoured by the likes of Amanullah Khan, whose network carried out sabotage operations based off the Palestinian model, in this period.

Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war with India, however, shook both Bhutto and Abdullah; now enthroned as Pakistani prime minister, Bhutto bluntly informed Abdullah that the Kashmiris could expect no reasonable help for a decade. In turn Abdullah mended his fences with New Delhi: in January 1975 he signed an accord with Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of his former persecutor Nehru, which enabled him to return to power in return for effectively forgoing autonomy. India’s irritant had become her trusted vassal in Srinagar.

The Abdullah family’s domination in Srinagar coincided with an increased militancy among Kashmiris. Amanullah’s Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front was set up in the late 1970s, though its activity was essentially confined at this point to lobbying efforts for Kashmiri independence. Inside Indian-occupied Kashmir, opposition to Abdullah and his son Farooq, who succeeded him, took a less militant form and at least grudgingly operated within the system. Ali Geelani and Salahuddin Yousuf, future leaders in the Islamist wing of the separatist movement, both participated in politics under the Indian mandate, the former as a member of the Jamaat Islami party. Abdul-Majeed Dar was also active in student politics at his home city, Sopore; while not a formal Jamaat member, he played a considerable role in Islamist student politics. Campaigning on behalf of Geelani, he was arrested on several occasions and once spent a full year in custody.

The Jamaat party was close to Pakistan’s military dictator Mohammad Ziaul-Haq, who had toppled Zulfikar Bhutto and overseen a sea change in geopolitics. This had largely to do with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as a result of which both Pakistan diplomatically as well as a particularly Islamist brand of militant internationalism were strengthened on the international front. Ziaul-Haq, already helping a Sikh insurgency in the Indian Punjab, also tried to coopt Amanullah – drawing in many of his lieutenants, but ultimately failing to draw in Amanullah himself, who was always suspicious of Pakistani motives. Thus Ziaul-Haq turned to the Jamaat, which was far more amenable to coordination between Muslim Pakistan and Muslim Kashmir. Its leaders in Muzaffarabad and Srinagar respectively, Maulana Abdul-Bari and Saaduddin Tarabeli, met with Ziaul-Haq in 1984; Tarabeli, who was initially hesitant, agreed to send Jamaat members including his own son for military training.

Nonetheless, what really kicked the Kashmiri opposition into overdrive was the election of spring 1987. Blatantly rigged in favour of Farooq Abdullah, who had succeeded his father as India’s man in Srinagar, this election featured several Kashmiri leaders of the oncoming insurgency in opposition, including future Hizbul-Mujahideen emir Salahuddin Yousuf. Abdul-Majeed Dar then sat on the board of an Islamist umbrella coalition – the Muslim United Front, chaired by Jamaat leader Ghulam Muhammad – and in the aftermath of the elections joined the thousands of Kashmiris who took up insurgency. Coincide as it did with both the ongoing Afghanistan insurgency and the rather more similar Palestinian uprisings, the Kashmiri insurgency kicked into overdrive with a not-inconsiderable prospect of success in the late 1980s.

Though the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front was initially the largest and most active insurgent group, the merger of several smaller Islamist fronts into larger outfits soon dwarfed it in both size and operation. Abdul-Majeed and his schoolfriend Bashir Reagan – nicknamed, apparently on account of his charisma, after the American ruler of the day – founded a militia based largely on their student network, but by 1989 this had merged into what became known as the Hizbul-Mujahideen. Closely linked with the Jamaat and its fellow travellers, this group was modelled, down to its name, on the Afghan Hizb party led by Gulbadin Hikmatyar, which had been the foremost party to train Kashmiris and was then particularly close to the Pakistani military.

Unlike the Afghan Hizb, however, Hizbul-Mujahideen never achieved the sort of centralized command around its emir that it may have liked. One reason was that while the Afghan Hizb enjoyed considerable space to operate in captured or surrendered territory, the Kashmiri situation more resembled the Palestinian or Irish one: the Kashmir valley was by 1990, with the arrival of the brutal governor-general Jagmohan Malhotra, swamped with regime troops and indeed became the most heavily militarized region in the world. Unlike Afghanistan and similar insurgencies, where considerable land exchanged hands and at least large pockets of rebel governance existed, Kashmir featured hit-and-run attacks, chronic instability, and disruption rather than any attempt to capture territory. Suicide attacks, though by the mid-1990s very much in vogue among Hizbul-Mujahideen’s ideological cousins in the Palestinian Hamas, were ruled out by Abdul-Majeed and his colleagues based on their dubious legality in Islam, but otherwise it was the same sort of war being fought in Palestine. By the same token, their streetfighting leaders were far more vulnerable to elimination; this resulted in a high turnover of leaders, and the Hizbul-Mujahideen were no exception. Few leaders have survived the party’s history; Ali Geelani, widely respected for his own sacrifices, remained an eminence grise in an unofficial capacity, but most of its remaining leadership fluctuated.

Very soon the leading council was based in Muzaffarabad as a fallback: small armed units were “launched” into Indian-occupied Kashmir from Azad Kashmir where they received support from established cells inside the valley. Nonetheless, not dissimilarly to Afghan insurgent parties’ struggles with their field commanders, a gulf started to emerge between the Hizbul-Mujahideen council based in Muzaffarabad and the internal command structure. An ill-advised attempt to control the latter resulted in several bloody purges during the mid-1990s, though some of these were undoubtedly Indian operations trying to cut a wedge between the insurgents. Eventually the Muzaffarabad council promoted to its lead Salahuddin Yousuf, who was in turn charged with liaising with Pakistan. Indian accounts have subsequently made much of the “Pakistan-backed” Salahuddin, portrayed as a chickenhawk hardliner and Pakistani stooge, and the allegedly more “moderate” field commanders. This largely nonsensical appraisal nonetheless stemmed from real tensions between the external and internal leadership, the former prioritizing its liaisons in the international realm while the latter prioritized its fighters in the field.

Abdul-Majeed Dar appeared the quintessential field commander at this point. He had spent the early 1990s in the battlefield, directing many attacks around his native city Sopore, and enjoyed considerable popularity. He was also well-regarded by the Kashmiri leadership in Pakistan, which recalled him to coordinate in the mid-1990s. But in fact – contrary to subsequent Indian propaganda, which saw Abdul-Majeed as a pragmatic battlefield commander and Salahuddin as a hawk beholden to Pakistan – Abdul-Majeed did not actually return permanently to occupied Kashmir until spring 2000. And indeed at that point, he had been entirely on the same page, and well-trusted by, the external Hizbul-Mujahideen leadership.

By this point a full decade had elapsed since the war started; occupied Kashmir was laden with blood; and the Indian government appeared, if anything, on the diplomatic upswing. India had allied firmly with Russia, Iran, and most Central Asian states in the Afghanistan war; Pakistan’s support to the Taliban emirate in that war was portrayed internationally as part of a larger “radical” Islamic flood that would sweep the region, including Kashmir. This had contributed to the contrasting outcomes of India and Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, with the latter punished economically and diplomatically while the former largely escaped such measures; it was also hardened by the 1999 war in Kashmir, when a Pakistani attack was eventually repulsed and received widespread international approbrium, as did – initially – the subsequent coup by army commander Pervez Musharraf against prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Like the regimes of both Sharif and Musharraf, Abdul-Majeed dismissed these notions. He knew several Afghan actors, and scoffed at the notion that Usama bin-Ladin – whose alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan was a particularly juicy selling point – had exercised any authority in Afghanistan, let alone Kashmir. He was by contrast quite keen to prove that the Kashmiri insurgency was a pragmatic, rational actor. Coupled with the exhaustion of Hizbul-Mujahideen fighters, in July 2000 – two months after returning to the valley – he announced a month-long ceasefire and offered substantive talks.

While Abdul-Majeed’s ceasefire took Ali Geelani and most of the external Hizbul-Mujahideen leadership by surprise, it did not initially cause any dispute. He was backed by an impressive array of Hizbul-Mujahideen field commanders – Abdul-Hameed Masood, Khurshid Asad-Yazdani, Farooq Mirchal, Ghulam, Zafar Abdul-Fattah, and possibly Naseeruddin Ghulam, most of them from the top deck of the organization’s command. And even the quintessential “external hardliner” Salahuddin Yousuf initially agreed to the ceasefire for a full month.

Indeed, quite contrary to the idea that this had jolted Pakistan, the exact opposite seems to have been true. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s new military dictator, had encountered a rough welcome to the international sphere, based in no small way off his reputation as a hawk from the previous year’s war. What had particularly stung had been American ruler Bill Clinton’s pointedly humiliating dismissal of him in a trip to South Asia that spring, which contrasted with Clinton’s warmer trip to India. Musharraf took American opinion seriously, and by July 2000 he was so fraught that he resorted to no less controversial a figure than Yasser Arafat to mediate on his behalf in Washington. Abdul-Majeed’s offer therefore worked entirely in Islamabad’s favour, and indeed Musharraf one-upped it by offering to meet Indian ruler Atal Vajpayee anywhere on any condition.

It was instead Vajpayee’s refusal to consider these terms that caused a subsequent rupture. It was a humiliating setback for Musharraf, whose trust in the Kashmiri insurgents’ judgement never recovered; from that point on he would seek to pursue his own talks separately. It was a more humiliating setback for Abdul-Majeed, whose credibility with the Hizbul-Mujahideen command had been shaken; critics darkly whispered of betrayal and conspiracy, which they assigned – both rather implausibly – to either Pakistani or Indian pressure. A jilted Salahuddin also never quite forgave the blunder.

The promise of the new millennium, which had begun with much hype about militant acceleration in Kashmir, thus caved. The Hizbul-Mujahideen organization began to fray, and not simply on external-internal lines: in October 2000 Masood Sarfaraz, a Hizbul-Mujahideen veteran in the Pir Panjal region, tried to break away in a mutiny that was forcibly quelled by the loyalist commander Shamsher Khan and the Azad Kashmir Jamaat emir, Abdur-Rasheed Turabi; an embittered Sarfaraz broke away from the organization outright. Coupled with the increased tension between Abdul-Majeed and Salahuddin, this contributed to the insurgency losing steam.

Abdul-Majeed, who always maintained public talk of unity, tried to save face. In spring 2001 he took credit for a high-profile attack on a high-ranked Indian officer, Bikram Singh, during the latter’s trip in Kashmir’s Islamabad; Singh survived and would become Indian army commander a decade later. But his attempt to paper over the cracks with Salahuddin came too late. By this point the Indian security services had their wedge, and they used it ruthlessly; the elimination of several of Abdul-Majeed’s lieutenants, including Abdul-Hameed Masood, blamed in the Indian media on Salahuddin’s “hardliners”, were much more plausibly done by India. But this could not be proven either way, and the fact that Hizbul-Mujahideen had conducted purges before contributed to the progressive unease between its factions.

In May 2002 the tension snapped when Hizbul-Mujahideen expelled Abdul-Majeed. Refusing the dismissal, Abdul-Majeed attempted his own breakaway; this, however, failed to get much traction, and within a year he was murdered in Sopore. The murder – blamed, again implausibly, by India on Salahuddin – nonetheless did not attract the sort of widespread grief normally reserved for slain Kashmiri commanders; doubts about treachery and treason had crept in, for had not Shaikh Abdullah been coopted by India decades earlier? The likelier explanation for the murder – that India, having vainly hoped that Abdul-Majeed’s ouster would split Hizbul-Mujahideen, put paid to him – can still not be confirmed.

Abdul-Majeed’s gamble for a ceasefire had effectively put his head above the parapet in the India-Kashmiri conflict, and the fact that it backfired had left him isolated and untrusted by both parties. His career, from student leader to militant commander to prospective and ultimately failed peacemaker, reflects responses toward shifting circumstances that ultimately proved beyond his control and swallowed him.

Walid Iyad. Palestine/Syria*. The mobilization and assertion of Palestinian militancy that immediately followed the 1967 Israeli conquest of Ghazza and the West Bank came hand in hand with a gradual power shift in the region. The governments of the region, while formally supportive of the Palestinian fidayin, found their leverage and authority over these fidayin much harder to ascertain; this was especially the case with the Fatah organization, the largest and most active Palestinian group. But though it made a virtue of maintaining autonomy from the governments, Fatah also had more to lose from unnecessary confrontation with those governments, in order to focus on Israel without losing key bases in the region. This was a challenge it largely failed, resulting in its bloody ouster from Jordan and then Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. The career and even the posthumous reinvention of Abu Ali Walid Muhammad Mustafa Nimr Iyad, a leading military leader in the Fatah command, illustrates this rather tragically.

The facts are these: Walid Iyad, one of the fidayin’s toughest and most capable commanders, had trained in Algeria immediately after its independence and thereafter banked on that experience to set up military recruitment and preparation in the Levant. In 1970-71, however, Fatah and other fidayin organizations fell out sharply with the Jordanian monarchy over power, having constructed a virtual state-within-a-state that posed a none-too-subtle threat to a monarchy that had always preferred its Palestinian populace as loyal subjects of the crown. The resulting war, where the Jordanian regime bloodily expelled the fidayin from their territory, culminated with Walid Iyad’s capture and execution, allegedly by Wasfi Tal, the hard-charging Jordanian prime minister and himself a loyalist Palestinian of the sort preferred by Amman. Months later, Tal was himself grotesquely murdered by one of several hit squads, set up by various fidayin commanders, that dabbled in outright terrorism (as opposed to guerrilla warfare) and named themselves after the slain “Abu Ali Iyad”.

It might then be expected that Iyad was a Palestinian commander of the exact sort that such Arab regimes as Jordan’s feared; a hardline revolutionary, as committed to subversion as he was to fighting the Zionist entity. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Walid Iyad’s career was that of a proper “fighting man”, loath to involve himself in overambitious politics and focused largely on the task at hand. After his martyrdom, his memory was rewritten and instrumentalized for political purposes – much as was the case with his alleged executioner, Wasfi Tal. Iyad was no subversive agent anymore than was Tal a remorseless enemy of Palestinian aspirations; in the final analysis, both men’s lives ended abruptly in the shifting conflict between mutually suspicious and uneasy allies in the war against Israel.

Walid Iyad’s formative years saw the conquest of Palestine by Israel against first a rather motley array of Palestinian groups and then against a no-less-motley array of fledgling Arab states in the late 1940s; interestingly Wasfi Tal then served on a military board, chaired by Iraqi army commander Ismail Safwat, that was meant to organize the anti-Zionist fronts, and his own advice on strategy was overruled. Whether it would have made a difference or not, Wasfi Tal was none too impressed with the experience and came firmly to believe that Arab state power of the sort that Jordan – whose fledgling, British-trained army was objectively the best performer in the war – was needed to liberate Palestine. This was exactly contrary to what Fatah supposed, and goes some way in explaining Tal’s rift with his compatriots.

Though hit-and-run Palestinian bands – mainly by peasants and farmers competing with Zionist settlers and frontiersmen – continued during the 1950s, it was hardly a promising period for any sort of actual insurgency. By contrast the attention of Iyad’s generation could only be drawn admiringly toward Algeria, where a century-long French colonial territory was expelled in a ruthless but rewarding war by the Algerian Front Liberation. Iyad, who moved to Algeria shortly after its independence in the 1960s and worked as a teacher there, was hardly alone in his admiration. A significant number of Arab, and especially Levantine, youth arrived in Algeria; they included the Syrian Baathists Yusuf Zuayyin and Ibrahim Makhous, who would soon become prime minister and foreign minister for one of the several Baath regimes that dominated 1960s Syria.

In 1964, the same year that Iyad returned from Algeria, the Masri regime pushed itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause and set up an umbrella organization of Palestinian activists, intellectuals, and militants; it is best-known as the PLO but, since I hate acronyms with a passion, I shall henceforth refer to it by its Arabic noun, Munqadha. In spite of the relatively large and well-trained units in its military wing, Munqadha was early on dominated by Masr, of which its unpopular founder Ahmad Shuqairi was a joint citizen. In founding Munqadha, Cairo was aiming to add another arrow to its bow of the sort it had already fletched in the form of the pan-Arab Qaumia network. This network, led by the Palestinian intellectual George Habash and disproportionately representing secularist Arab minoritarians of a leftist bent, was so loyal to Masr that for years it shied away from any militancy that it feared would draw Cairo into a war for which it was not yet prepared: its closest flirtation to militancy came in South Yemen, where it backed the insurgency against Britain without ever controlling it as it would oike.

By contrast the network of Palestinian militants that Iyad joined, which formed Fatah a few months later, firmly eschewed domination by any Arab state. They were largely Palestinians from refugee or expatriate backgrounds. While many of them had cut their teeth in groups as far-flung as the Muslim Brethren and the Baath, they had been disappointed in the inaction of these groups and eschewed any focus on ideology in favour of action. In this respect – their focus on spontaenous action rather than conscious organization or indoctrination – Fatah much more resembled the Palestinian militancy from the 1930s up to 1948, and sought to draw on its legacy.

Though Fatah had no single leader at the start, several leading figures gradually emerged. Most notable was Yasser Arafat, whose combination of domineering bravado and restless lobbying would eventually catapult him to its effective emir. Other leading figures included Khalil Wazir, like Arafat a former member of the Muslim Brethren, and along with his wife Intisar a clever and thoughtful organizer; Salah Khalaf, a former Baath member who would eventually dominate security and clandestine operations; the Hasan brothers Hani and Khaled, who had solid international connections; and Iyad himself.

Like many other insurgent groups, a rift would soon emerge between Fatah’s internal command and its external political offices, which were especially leery of Arafat’s unilateral recklessness. The latter included Arafat’s own brother Fathi and Adil Abdul-Karim, who was largely based in Kuwait but also enjoyed good relations with the Baath party. It is important to note that, despite their subsequent hype, early Fatah operations were quite modest and only remarkable for the fact that they occurred at all. But they soon caught the attention of other Palestinian groups as well as Syria, which had just undergone the latest of several internecine coups within a Baath party that was fast transforming it into a surveillance state that could hardly miss the Palestinian militiamen organizing on its territory. While the Syrian Baath faction that seized power in February 1966 included Iyad’s old Algeria contacts Zuayyin as prime minister and Makhous as foreign minister, real power lay with the secretive military junta of the Baath party, whose competing potentates sought to use the Baath for their own purposes.

Among these potentates were Baath strongman Salah Jadid, army minister Hafez Assad, and army commander Ahmad Suwaidani. Suwaidani, who already had several Palestinian militias as putative projects, was the most eager to support Fatah, and Assad the least. Suwaidani won out, since it was hoped that he could merge Fatah into his own projects, both led by army officers of Palestinian stock. The first was Ahmad Jibril, whose initially small front would morph into the Qiadah organization – a group that survives today and participates in the Syrian war on the regime’s behalf. The second in particularly caused Arafat unease; it was led by Yusuf Urabi, a brash commander who was both a friend of his Fatah rival Adil Abdul-Karim and tipped by the Baath regime to take over Fatah.

The tension soon snapped; in May 1966, Urabi was killed in a shootout with Arafat’s guards. Ironically it was Suwaidani’s rival Assad, who had hitherto maintained a cold disapproval, who swooped in to capitalize on the murder; accusing the Fatah command of murdering an army officer, he had them swept up in jail. Walid Iyad briefly took over as stand-in leader but was himself soon arrested, leaving Intisar Wazir, Khalil’s wife, in charge of a flailing organization.

Assad turned up the heat on his captives for six months; Arafat and his colleagues were thoroughly grilled by a military tribunal that comprised Assad, future army minister Mustafa Talas, future air marshal Naji Jamil, and his own Palestinian lieutenant in the airforce, Mahmoud Azzam. The conditions were gruelling; Arafat eventually staged a three-week hunger strike, while Wazir was only released after his infant son was killed in an accident. But, ever a cynic, Assad was not overly concerned about a murder; rather he wanted to coopt Fatah in his struggle with Jadid, Suwaidani, and the other Baath heavyweights. It was with Walid Iyad that he eventually signed a private understanding; in return for a Fatah training camp to be opened at Hama under airforce supervision, the fidayin would avoid links with Assad’s Baathist rivals and operate strictly on Syria’s terms – which included a ban on activity from Syrian territory that might prompt an Israeli attack.

This latter concern was reduced to a joke only seven months later, when Israel overran Masri, Jordanian, and Syrian forces to occupy the Sinai, Ghazza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights. The rout, while crippling in the immediate run, also provided an opportunity for the Palestinian militants – and in particular Fatah, whose longstanding mistrust of regime cooption seemed vindicated. Arafat took the lead in arguing for an insurgency, a move soon aped by many smaller competitors. And though the early insurgency in the occupation was smashed by the end of 1967, it did receive the approval of the regional states as well, in particular Masr, which needed to divert Israel while it reconstructed its military and waged an attritional border conflict on the Suez Canal. In short, the fidayin – and especially Fatah – had more leeway to act.

Walid Iyad’s camp at Hama took especial importance as Fatah mobilized in earnest. By every account he was a brave and effective leader, enjoying the confidence of both his fighters with whom he frequently forayed, and the Damascus regime. He also participated in the battle that made Fatah’s reputation and catapulted fidayin insurgency into the spotlight.

In 1967, Jordan’s cautious monarchy had thrown in its lot with the Masr-led republics; though this cost him the West Bank, Hussein bin Talal backed the Masr-led attritional war and, for the purposes of cooperation, admitted fidayin to operate from Jordan. Their bargaining power with regard to the monarchy was increased by the arrival of an Iraqi force, officially meant to guard Jordan and support the insurgents; this was led by the sympathetic Hasan Naqib, later Iraqi army second-in-command and, after his retirement, a Fatah member.

Bristling at the fidayin camp at Karameh across the Jordan river, in spring 1968 Israel dispatched a force to destroy it. Although it was only a small Fatah unit – some two hundred fighters – it was a rare collection of insurgents at an open spot, and Israel probably wanted to make a warning point to Jordan as well. Fatah leaders at the site included Yasser Arafat, Walid Iyad, and Hani Hasan; they received advice to back down from Naqib and Jordanian army commander Amer Khammash. Arafat, however, opted to stand and fight; according to Hani, his words were: “We want to persuade the world that there are those in the Arab nation who will not withdraw and flee. Let us die under the tracks of the tanks and change the course of history in our region.”

This stand paid off richly. It cost Fatah nearly half its fidayin battalion, but it cost the Israelis an unusual share of casualties in men and material as well, and catapulted the fidayin into the popular imagination of their generation. Never mind, as Arafat’s rivals darkly noted, that the Jordanian field commander Mashhour Haditha’s bold decision to join the fidayin, losing threescore troops in the process as they fired heavy guns at the Israelis, went largely unnoticed in the public eye. The fidayin’s popularity skyrocketed in the aftermath of the battle; tales and poems were written about the fundamental importance of such resistance to Palestinian identity. Money and recruits poured in, Iyad’s camp taking more volunteers than it was prepared to handle. Even Hussein bin Talal, long leery of the insurgents, was compelled to ride the tiger, announcing “we are all fidayin” The Jordanian regime had little option but to accept and support the fidayin.

To a considerable extent, this popularity went to the fidayin’s head. In subsequent years it is undeniable, even if Amman exaggerated the facts, that the insurgents formed an unruly state within the Jordanian state, misunderstanding Jordanian indulgence for weakness. The worst culprits, however, were not Fatah; despite their attempt to distance themselves from regime control, they had no fundamental quarrel with the Jordanian regime. Far worse were the Marxist groups, most of which had sprouted from a newly militant Qaumia. Qaumia’s founder George Habash, espousing a newfound Marxism, founded the Shaabia group, while a more radical understudy Nayef Hawatmeh founded a small breakaway front that prioritized action against such purportedly reactionary Arab states as Jordan as a more immediate priority than action against Israel. Hawatmeh had already influenced the takeover of South Yemen by a Marxist party, and was equally confident that he could take on Jordan. The generally modest size and lack of societal reach that these Marxist groups had only emboldened them to “force” the issue by carrying out headline-grabbing but strategically pointless operations such as the airplane hijackings planned by Habash’s military commander Wadia Haddad and Hawatmeh’s aide Fuad Abdul-Karim. This was a complete U-turn for Habash in particular; having once warned against rash action in order to prevent an Israeli strike on Masr, he now tolerated rash action that could jeopardize Jordan.

Fatah did not share the confrontational aims of its smaller rivals, but its sanctuary and newfound legitimacy undoubtedly went to many Fatah members’ head. By 1969 Fatah had effectively taken over the Munqadha umbrella, with Yasser Arafat doubling as Munqadha and Fatah emir and embarking on a series of international tours. Fatah militiamen, and even some leaders, fondly imagined that small states such as Jordan were now at their mercy, and that the lack of a confrontation was not due to Jordanian goodwill but their own magnanimity.

By contrast Fatah leaders intimately involved in diplomatic or military operations, such as Walid Iyad, Khalil Wazir, Khaled Hasan, and Kamal Udwan were much more cautious. They had little love for the Jordanian regime but realized that their forward operations in the occupation depended heavily on their Jordanian base. Similar tensions with Lebanon, whose Maronite-dominated army was more openly nervous about fidayeen activity, had been papered over by Masri diplomacy, but there was no such guarantee for Jordan.

One factor that complicated Fatah relations with Jordan was the steady influx of not only civilians but also Jordanian officers into the fidayeen camp. Though they varied widely in motive – some were ideological, others ambitious, others simply keen to fight at the front with their relative military expertise – these officer recruits came to occupy an increasingly significant role in Fatah; one prominent example, Attaullah Attaullah, soon came to challenge Walid Iyad’s control of the Lebanese and Jordanian bases, though he would not do so successfully until after Iyad’s death. The fact that many such recruits doubled as fidayeen and army officers, and that some – such as Abu Moussa Muragheh, a cousin of the Maoist fidayeen commander Fuad Abdul-Karim – sympathized with opposition parties in Jordan, made the Jordanian regime increasingly suspicious that the fidayeen, including Fatah, were planning a coup. Such Jordanian advisors as Wasfi Tal – who had in 1968 embraced the fidayeen alliance but quickly lost patience – were increasingly convinced that Jordan was not big enough for both the regime and the fidayeen. This tension ultimately led to the bloody war of 1970-71.

This is not the place to discuss the entire war’s history; suffice it to say that clashes between the army and fidayeen – the latter initially largely represented by the Marxist groups rather than Fatah – escalated in spring 1970, despite repeated attempts by both regional Arab states, Hussein bin Talal, and Yasser Arafat to come to an understanding. At one point, indeed, Hussein offered Arafat the prime ministry – which the startled fidayeen emir refused. Similarly, to assuage Fatah, Hussein promoted to prime minister Abdul-Munim Rifai and army commander the same Mashhour Haditha who had fought at the Karameh battle in 1968; both were trusted by the fidayeen. But Hussein was also keeping his powder dry, mobilizing the army as well as bedouin paramilitaries on whom the regime often relied in such troubled periods. In fact the prime ministry and army command became irrelevant; power was increasingly centred in an unofficial council comprising Hussein and his cousins in the army Nasir bin Jamil and Zaid bin Shaker.

For their part, the Marxists continued to escalate on the fidayin side, mounting brazen ambushes and openly planning a takeover. By the summer, with scores slain in skirmishes and tempers frayed, many Fatah leaders began to agree with them, boasting that they could topple the monarchy at a whim. Walid Iyad took the opposite view, arguing to the end that the fidayin should reach an accomodation and focus on insurgency in Israeli territory. But by this point even his fellow pragmatists were wavering; Kamal Udwan, himself a fierce critic of the Marxist groups, began to wonder if really a takeover wasn’t for the best, while Khalil Wazir actually tried to preemptively split the army by proposing a coup that would leave the state intact but replace Hussein with former army commander Mashhour. This bespoke overconfidence by even these more realistic commanders; in fact, the army was now entirely under the control of Hussein, his cousins Zaid and Nasir, and the loyalist bedouin army commander Habis Mujalli. Many Jordanian officers would defect in the subsequent conflict, but not enough to dent its progress.

This is not the space to recount the rapid and bewildering series of political, military, and diplomatic events that unravelled in what became known as “Black September” 1970; I will, if Allah wills it, write an article on this subject on the war’s fiftieth anniversary in September 2020. It suffices here to note that escalation – especially on the government’s behalf – was by now so inexorably set that a series of diplomatic attempts to stop a war by a cavalcade of Arab states faltered; these ran the ideological and partisan gamut from radical Masr, whose dictator Gamal Abdel-Nasser spent his last days in mediation and would perish before the month was out, to conservative Kuwait. Iraq, which had repeatedly assured the fidayin that it would crush any regime attempt against them, quailed under the threat of American airstrikes and backed out. By contrast the rival Baathist regime in Syria did mount a brief and ill-fated campaign across the border; this was a corollary of the bubbling conflict between Salah Jadid, whose faction approved the attack, and army minister Hafez Assad, who pointedly refused to give the attacking troops air cover and thus left them fodder for the Jordanian airforce. These events would have a profound impact in the region; within months Assad would unseat Jadid in a bloodless coup, while the ruling faction in Baghdad, including the future dictator Saddam Hussein, used Iraqi failure as a pretext to purge their opponents and cement their control.

But back to Jordan and the war; the fidayin’s illusions were swiftly and cruelly crushed, as the army drove them from Amman and Zarqa, where they had thousands of supporters and where they lost thousands in the campaign; most fidayin were expelled to northern Jordan, the majority in Ajloun under the joint command of Walid Iyad and Khalil Wazir. This show of force in the capital satisfied Hussein for the moment, and he called off the attack. But subsequent talks were bound to fail, partly because the newly confident regime was on a roll and partly because they rightly judged that Fatah could not keep the other groups in order. In fact, Fatah was forced to introspect by their sudden defeat, and spent the winter both trying to placate Hussein and chiding their rivals in the fidayin ranks. Ultimately, Hussein had no confidence in them, and his promotion of Wasfi Tal to prime minister heralded his resolve to finish off the fidayin enclave in Jordan.

As early as winter 1970-71 – while talks were still afoot – Tal mounted a creeping northward march. By the spring the regime had recaptured Jirash and Irbid, to only muted protests by the Arab capitals; indeed the fidayin suspected that the newly enthroned Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, despite his official protest, had given the Jordanian army intelligence on them. Israel had taken advantage of the crisis to stamp out the putative fidayin cells in the occupied territories; not till the late 1980s would they face an actual insurgency.

With Wazir rushing abroad to confer with the remaining leadership in Cairo, Walid Iyad was in sole command at the beleaguered Ajloun garrison when the final blow fell in July 1971. Several Jordanian soldiers who had defected to the militants were executed, as was Iyad himself in the final act of the fidayin enclave in Jordan.

This last action particularly galled Fatah. While Amman insisted that stray soldiers had shot the prisoners, and sentenced several to military trials, the militants were convinced that Iyad had been personally executed by Wasfi Tal. Though there is no proof of this, it did reflect a popular perception of the prime minister based in his particular interest and role in expunging his troublesome compatriots from Jordan. One Fatah leader, Khaled Hasan, later claimed that Tal privately came around to fidayin mistrust of Hussein and offered him a joint coup against the crown, but this is impossible to verify and seems dubious given Tal’s energetic role in the campaign.

At any rate, the events of 1970-71 stung Fatah enough to venture outside the strictly guerrilla sphere into a brief but internationally infamous venture into what can be described as terrorism. This was not strict policy, but several leading Fatah members – including Salah Khalaf and Abu Daud Oudeh, both of whom had been humiliated by the Jordanian regime in September 1970, and also including Yasser Arafat’s bodyguard Abu Hasan Salameh and Abu Yusuf Najjar – set up small and clandestine wings that dabbled in assassinations, sabotage, subversion, and bomb attacks. Khalaf, the most influential, even organized an attempt to assassinate Hussein bin Talal in October 1974. These networks adopted such names as “Black September” and “Abu Ali Iyad” – thereby ironically cementing the posthumous, and entirely inaccurate, reputation of Walid Iyad as a mastermind of such tactics and of general militant-regime confrontation. Yasser Arafat denied responsibility for most of their actions, but it was a mark of the war’s psychological effect that he, who had made many efforts to reconcile with Amman, eagerly claimed Fatah credit for the spectacularly grotesque murder of Wasfi Tal at Masr in November 1971. The embrace of such tactics, with their regular references to “Black September” and the execution of Iyad, shows the lingering fallout of the Jordanian triumph and the lingering regard held for its most famous and misremembered casualty.

Hasan Naqib. Iraq. I have written at length on this site about Iraqi politics, particularly with regard to military coups and factionalism, that predated the totalitarian regime of the Baath Party. Upon the Baath seizure of power, they embarked on a series of purges and counterpurges – largely directed in the early years against mutinous or potentially mutinous army officers, with the result that the Tikriti network of Saddam Hussein and Hasan Bakr entrenched itself for over three decades. Most leading opponents of the Baath were imprisoned, purged, executed, or escaped abroad; one particularly long-lasting survivor with an especially varied career was Major-General Abu Falah Hasan Mustafa Naqib, briefly the army second-in-command in the early 1970s but by the 1980s a renegade who flirted with Palestinian militancy before settling into exile politics with whichever opponent of the Baath regime would have him.

Naqib came from the historical garrison city Samarra, home to one of the familial networks in Iraq’s Sunni Arab community that rivalled the Tikriti Nasiris who would dominate under the Baath regime. As with many other officers of his generation, he was fired up with the idea of military-led revolution in the 1950s, and supported the July 1958 coup by Abdul-Karim Qasim and Abdul-Salam Arif against the monarchy. Naqib was in its aftermath sent to serve as military attache to the United States; Washington would become recurrent territory over the years.

Like Arif and many other officers, Naqib had seen the merger of Syria and Masr into the United Arab Republic just months earlier, and expected that Iraq would join soon. Qasim, however, prevaricated and soon made clear his opposition to the idea, purging Arif and thus fixing a target to his back from the many enthusiasts of unionism at the time. Very soon the public court presided by Qasim’s cousin, Fadil Mahdawi, which had been set up to try the ancien regime, was filled with pro-unionist officers who had plotted or been suspected of plotting against Qasim. While Qasim was a compulsive schemer, however, he was never a vindictive man, and in spite of Mahdawi’s bombastic verbal bullying he very rarely approved any capital punishment; Arif, for instance, he considered to be relatively harmless and gullible rather than malicious, and thus released after a while. A more serious affair was the Mosul mutiny in spring 1959, mounted by Abdul-Wahhab Shawwaf. In the bloody battle that ensued, the regime relied on militias – including Iraq’s then-large and brutal communist militia – to suppress the mutineers, who had wide support in the Mosul region. Though Qasim would purge the communists once he no longer needed them, this set an unhealthy pattern of militia domination by some party or other that continued for decades.

Working as the regime’s attache in Washington, Hasan Naqib naturally shared his thoughts on these matters. He was hardly a government supporter, given his own sympathy with unionism, but he had nonetheless never challenged it. He was, however, alarmed when for once Qasim did approve a death sentence – on Shawwaf’s co-conspirators, the veteran Free Officers Nazim Tabaqchali and former army spymaster Rifaat Sirri. There is an available record of his interview with the American foreign ministry’s regional specialist, William Lakeland. In it Naqib lambasted Fadil Mahdawi and bemoaned Qasim’s decision to execute the widely respected conspirators. Whether sincerely or because he was aware of his audience in the Cold War, he also made much of Qasim’s unhealthy alliance with the communists.

Qasim was at length ousted and killed in the February 1963 coup that brought Abdul-Salam Arif, briefly allied with the American-backed Baath Party, to power; the Baathists had just enough time to repay communist crimes with interest in an orgy of bloodshed before Arif purged them. Arif, and the brother who succeeded him Abdul-Rahman, themselves however abstained from joining Masr – the United Arab Republic having long since perished – and they survived coup attempts by the former prime minister, Arif Abdul-Razzaq, in 1965-66. (I have already written on this episode in my profile about Abdul-Razzaq).

Hasan Naqib seems to have progressed serenely up the army ranks during this period of praetorian intrigue. When the summer 1967 between Israel and the three neighbouring states – Masr, Jordan, and Syria – broke out, the Iraqi regime was slow to respond – in fairness largely because the war only lasted six days. They did dispatch a force led by Naqib west into Jordan, where Masri general Abdel-Monem Riad, in an apparently desperate late maneouvre, ordered them across the Jordan River. They were attacked by the Israeli airforce, which enjoyed virtual impunity in the skies at this point, and Naqib himself was injured as the Iraqis pulled back with the Jordanian defeat in the West Bank.

As the battered Arab states tried to rebuild, the Iraqi contingent remained in Jordan as a bulwark against any Israeli designs. They soon took on another role, however. By the end of summer 1967, Palestinian fidayin – particularly the freewheeling Fatah group led by Yasser Arafat – had begun to mount guerrilla operations in the occupied territories. This was encouraged by most surrounding governments, especially Masr, where Abdel-Monem Riad had now been promoted to army command and played a considerable role in the border war with Israel where he would be killed. Jordan, as the main point of entry and an easier target for Israel, was rather leerier, but acquiesced under pressure from its neighbours including Iraq. Thus Naqib’s expeditionary force served a double purpose – protecting the Jordanians from Israeli advances, and protecting Palestinian militant interests in Jordan.

In spring 1968 the fidayin won their most famous battle – against an Israeli raid at the town of Karameh. Here Arafat and the Jordanian field commander Mashhour Haditha eschewed cautionary advice from Naqib and Jordanian army commander Amer Khammash and beat off an Israeli raid, catapulting the fidayin’s popularity and power to new heights. Recruits poured in with platitudes, and the fidayin began to establish more and more camps and mount more and more operations.

Naqib became quite close to and popular with the fidayin, and in particular friendly with Arafat; his expeditionary force played a considerable role in supplies and upkeep. He had never been a particularly ideological or partisan officer, and thus survived his post after the Baath party, led by Hasan Bakr, seized power from Abdul-Rahman Arif in July 1968. Indeed, even as they mounted regular internal purges in the army over the next few years, the Iraqi Baathists were eager to keep up their influence in Jordan and with regard to the fidayin. Naqib was eventually promoted to army second-in-command.

By spring 1970, tensions between Jordan and the overly assertive militants were mounting, and began to culminate in a series of skirmishes between the Jordanian army and the fidayin. Though Fatah was not directly hostile to Jordan, repeated provocations by its leftist rivals-cum-allies and subterfuge by every party, including the government, killed off any prospect of a peaceful outcome. Nonetheless, as Arafat and Jordanian monarch Hussein bin Talal negotiated, the Iraqi expeditionary force was expected to play a major role in Fatah’s bargaining power. Most mediation attempts, resulting in only brief ceasefires, were led by Iraq, in particular interior minister Saleh Ammash who both coaxed and threatened the Jordanian regime. In May 1970, Ammash actually offered Arafat a coup, to be conducted by Naqib, that would oust Hussein from power and install the fidayin in Amman. Arafat, quite aware that the fidayin were in no shape to rule and worried about a pretext for an Israeli attack that they couldn’t survive, refused, but this episode only strengthened the perception that the Iraqis would shield the Palestinian militants.

It was a rude shock to everybody concerned, then, when full-fledged war did break out – and the Iraqis melted away. What had sealed the deal was a last-minute threat by the United States that they would bomb Iraqi troops, or do worse to the regime, should they dare assist any action against Jordan. This successfully cowed the regime in Baghdad; Ammash, so vocal for the fidayin’s cause earlier, now put it none-too-gently to Fatah diplomat Mahmoud Abbas: “We can replace the revolution with a hundred others, but our regime is more important.” This withdrawal paralyzed whatever planning had been done by the militants, who would soon be remorselessly expelled from Jordan.

As they took stock of the situation, Palestinian commanders were especially bitter at the Iraqi betrayal. Fatah leader Salah Khalaf claimed to have a phone call between Hussein bin Talal and the Iraqi army minister, Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, in which the latter assured Hussein of Iraqi non-interference. Although the decision seems to have been shared across the Baath cabinet, Khalaf’s naming of Hardan made the Iraqi army minister, one of the Baath’s most formidable heavyweights, an easy scapegoat for his competitors in the regime. Led by the fast-advancing Baath constable, Saddam Hussein, the regime sacked Hardan, and murdered him in exile. This went a long way in assuring Hasan Bakr and Saddam’s primacy – even though Saddam would also imprison and later execute the Baathist ideologue, Abdul-Khaliq Samarrai, who had urged intervention.

Abdul-Khaliq was not the only Samarrai leader left aghast at Iraqi non-interference. Hasan Naqib had fully expected to join battle on the side of the fidayin, and was vocal enough in his indignation that the regime decided to kick him upstairs. He was dismissed from the army and shunted off to ambassadorial posts, first in Spain and then Sweden. By the standards of Baath treatment toward their opponents, of course, he had had it very easy.

Though Iraq redeemed itself somewhat in the 1973 war with Israel – where its expedition played a major role in preventing an Israeli march to Damascus – Hasan Naqib continued to smart and soon turned against the Baath regime. In September 1978 he suddenly announced his resignation and defection to Fatah, which was then embroiled in a vexatious conflict at Lebanon. Arafat gladly welcomed his old friend Abu Falah into Fatah, where Naqib would serve as his military advisor. Along with former Jordanian officers Saad Sayel, Abu Moussa Muragheh, Ahmad Afana, and Attaullah Attaullah – who would each command Fatah at some point or other – the militants’ brass was increasingly filled with professional soldiers.

It is not entirely clear how much of a role Naqib played in Fatah’s plans during the Lebanon war, which were largely haphazard and reactive to events beyond their control. Syria, for example, had entered Lebanon on the side of their opposition, but nonetheless sided with them against Israel before turning back against them when that threat subsided. Fatah’s high hopes for Masr had been vanquished by Anwar Sadat’s détente with Israel in the late 1970s, and their relations with most Lebanese militias were generally tense or at best transactional. By the mid-1980s, Fatah fragmented as both Syria, Jordan, and Iraq backed splinter groups against Arafat – the first two backing the Jordanian officers Abu Moussa Muragheh and Attaullah Attaullah respectively in their mutiny against Arafat.

By this point Naqib seems to have lost interest in the Lebanon war. Iraq had entered a bloody war with Iran, and the heavy toll of the war presented Baghdad with a major challenge. Naqib decided to capitalize on this by setting up one of the earlier exile opposition groups, initially based at Syria. Over the years he met and haggled with other opposition exiles; when Iraq fell out with Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, Naqib cut a partnership with the Saudis. Such journeyman politics are not unusual for exiles, and abounded in the Iraqi case.

More questionable was Naqib’s decision to join the most notorious and opportunistic Iraqi exile, Ahmad Chalabi, in his Mutamar group, where he served as deputy. This partnership did not very last long either, perhaps because of Chalabi’s burgeoning links with the pro-Israel American neoconservatives, and soon Naqib had founded yet another exile group. His brother-in-law, Adnan Thabit, who still worked in the Iraqi army, was meanwhile involved with a rival group – the Wifaq group, led by Chalabi’s cousin and rival Ayad Allawi, and conversely backed not by the civilian neoconservatives but by American intelligence. In summer 1996 this network mounted an ambitious coup attempt, led by another former Iraqi officer called Abdullah Shahwani, but it was crushed. Thabit was among the scores of officers imprisoned in the aftermath.

When the United States – egged on by, among others, Chalabi – invaded Iraq in 2003, it was widely speculated, often with a dash of cynicism, that former Iraqi generals such as Hasan Naqib would find their way into the new order. This proved to be overstated, and was not true for the aging Naqib. But it did somewhat apply to younger exiles, such as Shahwani, who became spymaster, and Naqib’s son Falah, who had joined Ayad Allawi. When Allawi formed an interim cabinet in 2004-05, Falah served as its interior minister and hired his uncle, Adnan Thabit, to set up gendarmes under the interior ministry’s control; among their expeditions was the recapture of the Naqibs’ home city, Samarra, from Iraqi insurgents in autumn 2004. But the gendarmes proved brutal and reckless, and by the next year – when the Shia Islamists led by Ibrahim Jaafari and Nuri Maliki won the election – they became a hive for sectarian militias. These militias in turn threw themselves wholeheartedly into a murderous sectarian war with what would later become Daaish.

By this point Hasan Naqib’s career had long since receded into the shadows. Bouncing from state unionism to putative showdowns with Israel to fidayeen colours and finally American support, it had spanned some of Iraq’s most tumultuous episodes. But the feeling remains that, like his expeditionary force in Jordan during the autumn of 1970, Naqib never quite reached his promise.

Tripoli trapdoor trounces Haftar (crossposted)

Another article I had published for TRTWorld, Alhamdulillah.

https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/tripoli-trapdoor-trounces-khalifa-haftar-36247

The Libyan warlord has consistently upped the ante, but only has a losing hand to show for it.

It has not been a good year for Khalifa Haftar. The Libyan warlord has made a career of costly failures, but even by his standards, the gamble to capture Libya’s capital Tripoli and cement his place as the country’s generalissimo has proven costly.

Haftar, and his so-called Libyan National Arab Army, long reaped the benefits of two perfect storms – the incompetence of their rivals in the aftermath of the 2011 revolt, and the willingness of foreign sponsors to foot the bill for the ageing warlord’s ambitions in the name of stability.

With the year-long Arab Army assault on Tripoli and its environs having badly stalled, however, Haftar increasingly appears the biggest barrier to stability in the country.

A barrier to conflict – or a source?

Inside Libya, Haftar benefited enormously in his early years from the incompetence, inflexibility, and fragmentation of his opposition.

In the years immediately following the successful 2011 revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya regime, the winning coalition split.

Among the resultant problems were regional differences, dangerous maximalism employed by many winning rebels, and – with the dismantlement of former military and security forces – a perilous reliance on fragmented militias. This contributed to rising insecurity, especially in eastern Libya: the September 2012 attack on the American embassy at Benghazi was simply the most infamous example.

The rebels’ triumphalism was epitomised in a sweeping 2013 law that disqualified former officials from holding office; like the notorious “de-Baathification” law in Iraq a decade earlier. The law starved Libya of much-needed professional technocrats and officers, many of whom had had no attachment to the Jamahiriya dictatorship.

Many jilted officers rallied to Haftar when he began his march toward power in 2014. So too did actual ideological and political loyalists of the Jamahiriya regime, whose lingering presence in parts of the country had only fed the paranoia of the 2011 war’s winners.

In the instability that resulted, Haftar played up his conceit as a military strongman and thus a harbinger of stability and order. It is no coincidence that his rise to power came in eastern Libya, whose self-proclaimed government was based in Tobruk.

Not only did this region border Egypt, whose caudillo, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Haftar purported to emulate and who returned his Libyan imitator’s affections, but this region had had an especially toxic cocktail of regionalism and overreach by militants, including extremists.

Haftar drew heavily among clans and former regime officials alienated in the 2011-14 period and portrayed his campaign as that of a centralised, disciplined, and competent army against ragtag fanatics and terrorists.

In actuality, this proved a mirage.

Apart from a small core of professional officers increasingly overshadowed by his sons, Haftar’s Arab Army is reliant on its self-serving militias – including violently sectarian followers of Haftar’s Saudi cheerleader Rabiah Madkhali.

No less than militias affiliated with Tripoli, they also include self-serving fronts who change sides as suits their immediate convenience.

And if the 2011-14 period featured rebels who justified their violence with an “us-versus-regime” polarisation, Haftar has always defended his violence with an “us-versus-terrorists” polarisation. He has overplayed this card so often that even foreign observers have begun to see him as the boy who cries wolf.

One result has been that many of the Libyan commanders who backed Haftar expecting stability in 2014 have since switched to Sarraj’s side. These include, most prominently, Tripoli’s army ministers Mahdi Barghathi, from the eastern Benghazi region, and Osama Juwaili, a strongman in the western mountains; the latter has been leading the defence of Tripoli for the past year.

Mustafa Sharkasi, the leader of the Benghazi Defense Brigades, and Muftah Hamza, are other officers from the east who soon became disillusioned with Arab Army misrule.

In an indication of Tripoli’s ability to learn from former errors, Sarraj managed to win over former Jamahiriya commander Ali Kanna, who now leads the opposition to Haftar in southern Libya.

Increasingly, then, with his polarising rhetoric and his determination to violently crush any potential opposition, Haftar is beginning as much to appear a source of instability and violence as the alleged “terrorists” against whom his takeover in 2014 was first launched. This is risky not only for his prospects in Libya but also on the international stage.

Foreign support: Generous but not endless

While no side in the Libyan war is short on foreign backers, none have been patronised quite as charitably on the international stage as Haftar.

Neighbouring Egypt has been the most direct backer. As important are the United Arab Emirates, whose fanatically anti-Islamist government funded Sisi’s 2013 coup in Cairo shortly before supporting Haftar in Libya.

Meanwhile, Russian patronage has gone so far as deploying mercenary brigades in the Arab Army’s favour.

France, whose war in the Sahel mirrors Haftar’s self-proclaimed war on terrorism in Libya, has been especially energetic in promoting Haftar’s campaigns in Europe.

Other governments, including Washington and European governments, have been more coy, but this has more to do with the international recognition enjoyed by Haftar’s opponents in Tripoli than it does with any necessary opposition to his agenda.

In this respect, Haftar is the latest in a long line of military adventurers that France, in particular, and other countries in the Global North have pushed to further their interests in the region.

The security of the Mediterranean, especially in terms of migrants and militancy, is paramount in the concerns of these governments. Haftar might remember that former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s short-lived rapprochement with the West in the 2000s was based partly on his positioning himself as a buffer, but he would do well to remember how quickly that rapprochement ended as well.

But even more so, his career resembles the trajectory of another ruthless warlord formerly backed and then discarded by France – the Chadian adventurer Hissein Habbre, whom Paris and Washington had backed as their bulwark against Gaddafi in the 1980s.

Ironically, it was Habbre who had captured Haftar in battle before the Libyan general defected, beginning his links with US intelligence that have persisted since. But Habbre, too, was ruthlessly ditched when his lieutenant Idriss Deby turned on him and has ruled Chad since. His career provides a cautionary tale that Haftar would do well to heed.

As of now, Haftar will feel he still has time. Shielded by distance and convenient geopolitics, Abu Dhabi, in particular, is willing to spend vast resources in backing a would-be dictator for Libya. Neighbouring Egypt has no such luxury, however.

France, Russia, and other European countries may well lose patience in their investment. Haftar’s conquest of Tripoli was meant to be a quick fait accompli, to guarantee the return of stability to Libya on their terms.

Thanks to the resilience of a Tripoli government stiffened by Turkey, quite the opposite has happened; last month, the Arab Army lost the western port Sabratha, leaving only Tarhouna from western towns under their control. Meanwhile, the southern Mediterranean is as unstable as ever.

It remains to be seen how long his patrons’ patience will last before the widening cracks in Haftar’s eastern fiefdom reach the point of no return.