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Features

Cautious optimism for 'The Long War'

By PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published September 3, 2006


 
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
At one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, a soldier hoists his battle rattle -- full combat gear -- up marble steps. Earlier in the day Abizaid was at the palace for a briefing on sectarian violence in Baghdad.

In search of ground truth
By Paul de la Garza
CentCom chief Gen. John Abizaid crisscrosses the front lines to get intel on the war on terror. And he has a message for his troops: "Tell the truth."
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Abizaid talks to the Times about extremism, leading our troops and his unique perspective on Middle East conflicts.

You have said Americans look at the U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility through "soda straws" aimed at Iraq and Afghanistan. How would you propose we look at it?

I think it's important to look at the region as being interconnected culturally, militarily, economically, politically in a way that's very important to the security interests of the United States. I wish there was a way to keep our country safer by not operating and not being part of the security solution to the Middle East without being in the middle of it, but I don't see how that's possible. Do I think we can do it with less forces over time? Yeah, I do. Do I think we can ignore this problem? I think that we ignore the security problems of the Middle East at our own risk.

As commander of CentCom, how do you confront the problems that help breed extremists in such a large territory?

I think people need to understand that it's not a matter of being in control of everything, because we're clearly not in control of everything. It's a matter of trying to shape the environment with the tools at your disposal. The tools at my disposal are primarily military but they also invariably include some sort of economic and diplomatic components. You get your hands around it the best you can by getting to know the people of the region, by studying the culture, by employing our military forces where they need to be employed and not using them where they don't need to be employed. And by encouraging the forces of moderation in the region, because really what's going on out here is a struggle between moderation and extremism.

How do you put up with the pressure of knowing that America's security rests largely with you?

I think it rests with us, the collective group of us that are out here trying to do this work. I've been out here for a long time. I know the problems. I know the people. I've met many of the leaders. I feel that I am comfortable in the area. I'm not afraid of it.

What role does being Lebanese-American play in how you see the region?

It's a tight community. You're proud of being part of it. You enjoy the cuisine - you know the way that families sit around the table and talk and argue. Those things have given me a feel for the culture that I wouldn't have. It's not true that I spoke Arabic at home, which a lot of people mistakenly think. I learned how to speak Arabic because the Army sent me to language school back in the early '70s.

As the commander of Central Command, how does being Lebanese-American affect the job?

Being an officer of the armed forces of the United States is the first priority. But being a commander of CentCom, it's easy for me to recognize some of the things that are cultural within the Arab community because I've experienced it at home. And it does help me understand what might be inexplicable to the average American that didn't experience the culture growing up, helps me to put it in context in a way that makes my job easier to do.

What drives you?

It's a very challenging area of operations. What drives me is the need to give these young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines the opportunity to be successful in a dangerous environment. And what also drives me is the need to enhance our own security at home, because I believe that we either fight in the Middle East or we fight at home. I also think it's very important to have respect for the people in the region. I do respect the people in the region. I respect their culture. I respect their history and I think often some of the problems that we Americans have with this part of the world is caused by lack of understanding, followed by lack of respect.

You've been credited with coining the phrase "the Long War." What do you mean by the Long War?

The Long War in the Middle East, in Central Asia and down into the Horn of Africa is really the war against extremism. If we're not careful, if the extremist mentality becomes mainstream, it can propel the region into a major clash between Western nations and their ideology. The Long War is a generational struggle. It will take many years of militarily helping the institutions in the region become more robust and more capable, of providing economic opportunities where it makes sense, of helping to shape people's thinking about their political futures.

In the war on terror how do you define victory?

You've got to deny this enemy the opportunity to achieve a breakthrough in a weapon of mass destruction. Look, extremism will be with us forever. We have extremism in our own country. When it becomes a danger to your way of life, you have to confront it.

During a briefing in Afghanistan you told your ground commanders that soldiers have to do a better job of educating the world about the enemy. Why?

It's important to talk about it because this isn't a group of people that are doing this to us by accident. They have a desire to dominate the region and to impose their way of life on the people of the region in a way that can be extremely dangerous for our way of life over time.

Where are we in Iraq?

There's been an awful lot of progress made in Iraq. There's been huge progress made in building the armed forces and progress made in the building of institutions, progress made in Iraqi self-governance. There remains a difficult insurgency, but more importantly a very, very dangerous level of sectarian violence that if left unchecked could move the country into civil war. Then there really is no future for Iraq. The people that have got to stand up and make it work are the Iraqis more than anybody else.

Have we seen the worst of it in Iraq?

It's pretty difficult for a soldier to predict what's the worst of it. Can there be bad days, will we have some difficult times? Undoubtedly so. Can we move toward reconciliation, can we get the militias under control, can we collectively with the Iraqis bring the sectarian violence under control? I think the answer is yes.

In the three years you have been CentCom commander, what is the most positive thing you have seen in Iraq? What is the most negative thing that you've seen?

Clearly the most positive thing that I've seen in Iraq is the development of the Iraqi army. The thing that is the most negative that I've seen in Iraq is when we have episodes of our own ill discipline such as Abu Ghraib. It undermines our soldierly honor, it creates a very negative opinion of the United States of America in the people that we're trying to help, and ultimately it feeds our enemy's propaganda and allows our enemy to gain victories that they can never gain on the battlefield.

How does American public opinion affect the way you do your job, the way you prosecute the war?

I struggle with it a lot. I'm always perplexed as to why in Washington there will be such lack of confidence in some quarters. It's difficult to see the broader picture of the progress that we've made because it's slow progress, but it's steady progress. It's difficult to think of us as winning because there's so much ambient violence. Sometimes the 24/7 news cycle drives people's opinion that it's only chaos and there's no hope for victory, but that's not true. Am I discouraged by bad publicity? Sometimes. Am I worried about the outcome? If day-to-day public opinion is so driven that people lose confidence in this enterprise that we can't ultimately be successful, then we fail.

[Last modified September 1, 2006, 09:28:19]


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