An enduring image of Gen. John Abizaid is of him bounding from an armored Humvee in one of Baghdad’s toughest neighborhoods last summer and conversing with shopkeepers and imams who were dumbfounded to encounter a four-star general chatting with them in Arabic. Abizaid, who retires Friday as commander of US Central Command, brought something special to the job. He was an Arab-American who understood the region’s culture and spoke its language. But more than that, he was an intellectual who thought more deeply about the strategic issues in what he liked to call the “long war than almost anyone in the United States government. “Not since Douglas MacArthur have we had a regional commander who understood so well the area for which he was responsible-its culture, history, language, says Chuck Boyd, a retired Air Force four-star general who now heads a group called Business Executives for National Security. Abizaid likes giving interviews about as much as he likes going to the dentist. But he agreed to talk this week about some of the lessons he has learned as commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan since he took over at CENTCOM in July 2003. How do you win a “long war against Islamic extremism if your country has a short attention span? That’s an overarching concern for Abizaid in a conflict where time-not troops, not tactics-is the true strategic resource. “The biggest problem we’ve got is lack of patience, he says. “When we take upon ourselves the task of rebuilding shattered societies, we need not to be in a hurry. We need to be patient, but our patience is limited. That makes it difficult to accomplish our purposes. Abizaid tried to stay focused on the long war-the battle against Islamic extremists who would kill a million Americans in an instant, if they could-and to avoid taking actions in the Iraq theater that would make this larger conflict worse. That meant trying, wherever possible, to reduce the footprint of American occupation in Iraq and to push the Iraqis to solve their own problems. “Insurgencies are not easily solved by foreign troops, he warns. Only Iraqi security forces can stabilize the country in a lasting way, and America’s mission is training and advising those Iraqi forces. That’s where patience comes in: America is four years into a process that, by Abizaid’s reading of counterinsurgency history, takes an average of about 11 years. On that timetable, less than halfway through, he thinks the US is doing okay in Iraq-assuming it has the patience to finish the mission. Abizaid won’t talk, even in his final week on the job, about the political debate that has swirled in Washington during his final months about whether to “surge additional troops into Iraq. But it’s clear from his public statements that he regards the number of troops as a tactical matter. The essential ingredient for victory is something different-a comprehensive strategy that draws together all the resources of the US government, and that has enough public support to endure from election to election and administration to administration. “Military power solves about 20 percent of your problem in the region, he said in a speech at Harvard last November. “The rest of it needs to be diplomatic, economic, political. This need for comprehensive strategy-and for a new national-security structure that can make it work-is the second big lesson for Abizaid. Facing a global communist adversary in 1947, the United States created new institutions that could coordinate all the different strands of policy, and Abizaid argues that we need a similar 1947-style reform now. “There are too many bureaucratic impediments, he says. It’s too hard, in Abizaid’s view, to balance elements that should be working together but are instead competing-the State Department versus the Pentagon, the legislative branch versus the executive branch, Iraqis versus Americans, America versus its allies. Abizaid says that after retirement, he wants to join in a public debate about how to reform a national-security system that hasn’t worked well enough in Iraq. It’s said that he turned down a chance to be director of national intelligence, a job that would have suited his strategic vision. He’s thinking of writing a book, so long as a publisher doesn’t demand the kind of kiss-and-tell memoir that makes him uncomfortable. But if the war against Islamic extremism lasts as long as Abizaid predicts, it’s hard to think that he won’t be back in this fray again, next time as a civilian.
Syndicated columnistDavid Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.