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In search of ground truth

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."

Published September 3, 2006

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Gen. John P. Abizaid considers it imperative that U.S. commanders in the region educate the world about their work. Every time a road is built, issue a news release, he says at a briefing in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in July.
Photo gallery with audio

[AFP/Getty Images]
Abizaid thinks Iraqi police and courts will make a difference in Baghdad, despite violence such as this bombing in August, which came a month after his last visit to the capital.
Cautious optimism for 'The Long War'
By Paul De La Garza
Abizaid talks to the Times about extremism, leading our troops and his unique perspective on Middle East conflicts.
Go to article
Photo gallery with audio and map
Audio interview and podcast



Army Gen. John P. Abizaid walks into the secret briefing, wearing fatigues and holding a cup of coffee.

Everyone stands.

Regional headquarters for U.S. Central Command is in the middle of the desert, a walled compound of air-conditioned warehouses. CentCom's territory stretches from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia to the Middle East, comprising 27 nations, 651-million people and 65 percent of the world's oil reserves.

That means the war between Israel and Hezbollah, in its early days, is Abizaid's latest headache. He has been working the phones all night, coordinating evacuations of Americans from Lebanon to Cyprus.

Abizaid and a half-dozen members of his war council take a seat behind a crescent-shaped table facing three large TV screens used for PowerPoint presentations.

On one screen, two CentCom officers from MacDill Air Force Base are piped in via video conference. It's 1:30 a.m. in Tampa.

The briefing begins with the weather. An officer announces that a cold front is in the forecast. "That means it will only be 140 degrees in the Arabian Gulf," Abizaid quips.

Heat affects everything here. Daytime highs routinely exceed 120 degrees. The skin of airplanes gets so hot that mechanics wear gloves to keep from getting burned.

Next, the TV screens display headlines about developments in the CentCom region. A Washington Post story about the crisis in Lebanon gets particular attention.

For 20 minutes, staff inundate Abizaid with the freshest intelligence from the region. Abizaid fires back with questions:

What about these reports of foreign operatives placing roadside bombs in northeastern Iraq? Have Israeli ground forces crossed into Lebanon?

When answers are vague, or an officer stumbles, Abizaid pushes.

"Forget I'm wearing four stars," he says. "Just tell me what you think."

Abizaid, 55, has an insatiable appetite for information.

To process it all, he jots down details in a tattered blue notebook. He has a personal aide and an executive officer who help him keep track of time, the body armor he wears in hot spots, even his sunglasses.

With modern communications, Abizaid could do much of his job from Tampa. But he visits the war zone at least once a month.

"He's in search of ground truth," says Air Force Col. Jerry Renne, who travels with Abizaid and is his chief spokesman.

"No one knows the territory better than the men and women on the ground, fighting the fight on a daily basis."

Immediately after the briefing, Abizaid heads to the Persian Gulf.



Aboard the USS McFaul, Abizaid's passion for the San Francisco Giants sparks playful banter with a young sailor from Philadelphia.

"Don't tell me you like the Phillies," he says.

Minutes later, Abizaid greets another sailor.

"Did you go to the Naval Academy?" he asks.

"Yes, sir."

"My condolences," the Army general says.

The bridge of the 500-foot missile destroyer booms with laughter.

Abizaid and several aides fly here via helicopter to meet with Royal Australian Navy Commodore Peter Lockwood, head of coalition maritime operations in the northern gulf.

Lunching on fried prawns, sandwiches, Pepsi and Diet Coke, they cram into a tiny room below deck for a briefing on piracy on the high seas, and reports that terrorists are trying to acquire a weapon of mass destruction to ram into an oil platform.

As Lockwood walks him through the details, Abizaid sits back on one of two love seats in the room and sips Diet Coke, the words on the can written in Arabic. Abizaid interrupts to ask about threats from Iran and the capabilities of the Iraqi navy.

Minutes later, during a ship tour, his questions are more personal.

"Where you guys from? Where's your port of call?" he asks a group of sailors.

"Norfolk, sir," one responds, star-struck.

Abizaid is as comfortable around the troops as he is with fellow generals. He routinely strikes up conversations, asks about hometowns, passes out attaboys.

"You heard it here," he says, "you guys are doing a great job."

One young man who meets Abizaid and receives a souvenir CentCom coin describes the moment as "the highlight of my deployment."

Abizaid is known as a soldier's soldier, though his resume reveals a broader repertoire. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and holds a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University.

His battlefield exploits have helped to solidify his reputation for taking the fight to the enemy.

In the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983, Abizaid improvised an attack on a Cuban bunker by having his unit take cover behind a charging bulldozer. The episode was depicted in the 1986 movie Heartbreak Ridge, with actor Clint Eastwood portraying Abizaid.

Married with three children, Abizaid is a Lebanese-American who sees the region through the prism of his heritage. His grandparents left southern Lebanon in the 1880s and moved to San Francisco.

"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," says Abizaid, who learned Arabic in the military.

He grew up in California in a tight-knit Roman Catholic family. He says they argued and talked about relatives around the dinner table.

Aboard the McFaul, Abizaid tells sailors about his late father, who raised him after his mother died of cancer. A Navy machinist in the Pacific Ocean in World War II, the father would become an inspiration for the son's career.

"You know, we'd just sit around and talk about his experiences in the service," Abizaid says. "It sounded to me like serving the country was something that would be very interesting - a chance to travel, a chance for adventure, a chance to lead."

As he wraps up his visit, Abizaid tells the crew he appreciates the fact that it's hot - 122 degrees on the runway at nearby Kuwait International Airport - and that they are far away from home and family.

"The only thing I can tell you guys, pay attention," he says. "A lot of stuff happening out there with the Israelis, Palestinians, the Iranians. We have to stay more ready than normal."

He will deliver a similar message in Afghanistan.



As the Boeing 737 lands at Kabul International Airport, bordered by the spectacular Hindu Kush mountain range, the runway is lined with armed forces and armored vehicles.

The elevation in Kabul, 5,900 feet, gives Abizaid and his entourage a break from the heat, with the temperature at 91 degrees.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Only 4 percent of nearly 30-million Afghans have electricity. Three in 10 know how to read. The per capita income is $800 a year. U.S. officials say Afghanistan is trying to go from the 14th century to the 21st century, without an industrial revolution.

On the short but congested drive to the U.S. base Camp Eggers, the eight-vehicle convoy passes old-style Soviet buildings, a crumbling market, a man tilling a field, another pulling a goat and two boys jumping on each other and laughing.

Burkas, a requirement in the previous Taliban regime, are still worn by some women, but not all.

At Camp Eggers, Abizaid is to be briefed on NATO plans to take over military operations in the country from the United States.

As he enters the room, a junior officer prepares to announce his arrival. "I wouldn't do that," an aide advises. The general is not one for ceremony.

Abizaid begins by setting the room of 24 officers at ease. He teases Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, over his selection of pineapple and other fruit for snacks.

"I'm glad you went all out, Karl."

Husky laughter.

But the briefing, led by a British colonel, quickly turns serious.

With Eikenberry and CentCom's political adviser by his side, Abizaid gets an assessment on southern Afghanistan, where the coalition and the Taliban are engaged in fierce battles. He hears that reconstruction projects across the country are at a virtual standstill because of the fighting.

At one point, Abizaid balks at a NATO request for a U.S. military police battalion.

"Bulls---!" he tells the colonel leading the briefing. "The alliance needs to start acting like an alliance." He says the NATO force must have more than an American and British face.

Though refusing to provide the extra unit, Abizaid acknowledges he does not want to send the message to the Afghans and to the world that the coalition "is closed for business."

"On this one, I'd have to say, we gave at the office."

The British colonel looks at him, nods and moves on.



Abizaid's command requires him to be both soldier and diplomat.

In the morning he meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Later he visits with Ronald Neumann, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and with top NATO officials.

In the evening he attends a garden party featuring red and white wine, grilled lamb and shrimp. Abizaid, still in fatigues, walks in with Marine Gen. James Jones, NATO's supreme allied commander.

The guest list includes the Afghan vice president, local dignitaries and diplomats. Some wear suits, others wear traditional Afghan dress - a turbanlike head scarf and a thigh-length shirt.

Throughout his visit, Abizaid stresses that the key to victory here can be summed up in two words: development and roads.

He says it is vital to help the nations in the region help themselves to minimize the danger to the United States.

"I think often some of the problems we Americans have with this part of the world is caused by lack of understanding, followed by lack of respect," Abizaid says. "The main part belongs to the people who live out here . . . they have got to make their choices between a future where they can achieve prosperity and peaceful coexistence with their neighbors or be at constant warfare with one another."

In Kandahar, that struggle will be even more evident.



The Taliban have put the word out that they plan to attack this ancient city in southern Afghanistan, the group's former capital.

From there, the plan is to move north to Kabul.

In recent days, insurgents captured two towns in the Kandahar area before coalition forces drove them out.

Come winter, U.S. intelligence officials say, the enemy will pack it up and go home, content to lie low until spring.

At a desolate military airfield, Abizaid meets with two dozen members of a military task force representing the United States, Canada, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

This briefing offers no PowerPoint presentation, no high-tech TV screens, no pineapple. Just an old-fashioned map of the country that covers a nearly 8- by 8-foot wall.

Abizaid sits up front in a row of chairs jammed together. His political adviser, Ambassador Richard Roth, CentCom's liaison with the State Department, sits behind him. A CIA officer who travels with Abizaid sits alone in the back.

Wood doors outside the room creak as footsteps come and go.

Abizaid is uninterested in the minutiae of battle plans, entrusting that to subordinates. He has other things on his mind.

Who is funding the Taliban?

The answer is complex.

Part of the money comes from the drug trade, briefers say. Afghanistan is the world's top grower of poppies, used to manufacture heroin.

Then there are those who believe in the Taliban, even from a distance. These sympathizers include residents of oil-rich Middle Eastern countries aligned with the United States. They can raise as much as $300,000 during the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, known as Hajj, according to U.S. intelligence.

Afghans can earn $3,000 to $5,000 from the Taliban for planting roadside bombs that take out coalition forces, briefers say.

Abizaid offers help in the form of materials and weapons. "What you guys need to do," he says, "is not be shy about what you need."

He also confronts a recurring problem: the Taliban's well-oiled media campaign. Every time the Taliban attacks a village or coalition forces, their media strategists alert the Associated Press and Reuters news service in Kabul. Stories, true or not, get splashed around the globe.

Abizaid implores commanders to tell the world about the enemy, to talk about every atrocity they commit. He says terrorists' attempts to acquire a weapon of mass destruction and use it against the United States is the most underreported story of the war.

Every time a road is built, issue a news release, Abizaid says.

"Tell your story. Tell the truth," he tells ground commanders.

After the briefing, Abizaid meets with a news crew from the Canadian Broadcast Corp.

He says the insurgents are doing everything they can to increase their media profile.

"They are good at exploiting, going into a town and then very quickly turning the story into their own network of people," he says.

Now it's his turn.

"It's important for people to understand that we really don't tell much of the story about the enemy," Abizaid tells the interviewer, a U.S. flag in the background of the poorly lit room. "The enemy uses suicide bombers, assassinates people, has no vision of the future whatsoever, doesn't offer anybody anything other than what the Taliban gave to Afghanistan back in the period before 2001."



From 200 feet in the air, Baghdad looks like a dream.

As the setting sun casts a vibrant orange hue over the sprawling city, Abizaid's Black Hawk is one of several military choppers that crisscross the metropolitan sky.

With the temperature at 110 degrees, the air blowing through the chopper feels like a furnace.

Below, roadways are littered with debris and shattered glass. Yet children in the city of 7-million can be seen frolicking in the streets, playing soccer in vacant lots.

In Baghdad, Abizaid travels exclusively by Black Hawk, accompanied by two Apache attack helicopters.

With good reason.

In June, more than 100 people a day died in Iraq, mostly in the capital. "The emerging phenomenon of Iraqis killing Iraqis on a daily basis is nothing less than a catastrophe," the United Nations says.

U.S. military officials in Baghdad say security is eroding, that attacks are more frequent and the new government is getting little traction. "I'm not sure we've seen the bottom of the well, in terms of how violent it will get," a military official says.

Amid plans for more U.S. troops in Baghdad, even some Republican lawmakers have begun to shift their message on the war, acknowledging major obstacles and mistakes in planning.

But Abizaid sees progress.

He cites the creation of Iraqi security forces and efforts to beef up courts and police.

"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," he says. "It's difficult to think of us as winning, because there's so much ambient violence."

In Baghdad, Abizaid stays at Camp Victory, one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.

The air-conditioned compound boasts marble floors, high ceilings, crystal chandeliers, spacious sleeping quarters - and bats. Way too many bats.

Abizaid gets a room to himself, replete with king-sized bed. His staff settle in the surrounding rooms, furnished with rows of bunk beds.

Abizaid's tight and often unpredictable schedule allows no time to unwind.

Luggage, camouflage flak jackets and other personal belongings pile up in the hallway of the palace, as everybody keeps an eye on "the boss," ready to move at a moment's notice.

At Camp Victory, Abizaid has a briefing with Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the U.S. commander in charge of training Iraqi security forces.

On the bright red table before him, Abizaid has a Diet Coke, a packet marked "SECRET" and his tattered blue notebook.

Dempsey outlines the challenges of recruiting soldiers from a pool of young Iraqi men who are killing each other every day. He also relays private conversations he has had with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki about troop levels.

For the first time on the trip, Abizaid broaches the subject of sectarian violence. He says the reports he's seeing are discouraging.

Within hours of his arrival, 11 combatants die in a firefight between Iraqi forces and Sunni gunmen. Abizaid says the next five months will be pivotal in controlling sectarian violence.

The generals, who call each other by their first names, end the briefing by asking about each other's daughters. One of them was just in Baghdad.

As Abizaid leaves the room, he wishes Dempsey well.

"God bless you," Abizaid says.



It's the evening meal at the palace, 14 hours after the day dawned in Kabul. Five members of Abizaid's inner circle sit down to enjoy roast beef, baked chicken and mashed potatoes prepared by enlisted troops.

As Army Brig. Gen. John Custer prepares to dig in, an Abizaid aide shows up.

For the second time in five minutes, Abizaid, holed up in a nearby communications suite, wants to see Custer, the CentCom intelligence chief.

"Are you serious?" Custer responds, rolling his eyes.

"Yessir," the aide says.

After Custer leaves the table, the CIA officer hides Custer's roast beef.

Minutes later, Custer returns to an empty plate.

"Where's my food?" he demands.

The CIA officer whips out a napkin and dumps the beef on Custer's plate.

More laughter.

This is payback. In Afghanistan, Custer had teased the CIA officer about his short haircut.

No sooner do they polish off dessert - chocolate strawberry cheesecake - then Abizaid sprints out the door for a private dinner with Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

The two would honor Casey's 58th birthday, though violence elsewhere in the city would offer little reason for celebration.

The next morning, in an interview with the Armed Forces Network, Abizaid offered a sound bite that would resonate around the world.

"On this trip," he says, "it's really become clear to me that the biggest problem is sectarian violence. It is possible that if we are unable to quell it, that civil war can break out."



Inside the cockpit of the gray C-17 cargo aircraft, the three-man crew prepares for departure. They must move as fast as possible to avoid getting shot down.

Abizaid climbs aboard the noisy behemoth after a secret special operations briefing.

Once cleared for takeoff, the pilot guns it.

Seconds later, only a couple hundred feet in the air, radar indicates the aircraft is under attack.

"Missile launch! Missile launch!" a computer-generated voice alerts the crew via headsets. The plane fires flares aimed at diverting enemy missiles.

Mission commander Sam Blunt looks out both sides of the cockpit but sees nothing.

The alarm sounds again: "Missile launch!"

Abizaid sees the diversionary flares from his seat in the bowels of the aircraft and rushes up the stairs to the cockpit. He stands behind the pilots as they work.

It's a welcome sight: the general in black sunglasses, scanning the skies.

Moments later, the drama ends: False alarm, Blunt says, probably triggered by the angle of the sun or reflection off a car windshield.

Everybody laughs.

Abizaid recalls the time a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at his helicopter. On another mission his convoy was attacked.

"It's dangerous out here."



Army Gen. John P. Abizaid

Commander, U.S. Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, since July 7, 2003; in charge of military operations across Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan).

Date of Birth: April 1, 1951.

Birthplace: Redwood City, Calif.

Heritage: Lebanese-American.

Foreign languages: Arabic.

PERSONAL: Married, three children.

Interests: Major League Baseball (San Francisco Giants); personal sports, including mountain biking.

Education: U.S. Military Academy at West Point; Harvard University, master's in Middle Eastern studies; Stanford University; University of Jordan.

SERVICE: Led a Ranger Rifle Company during the invasion of Grenada; commanded 3rd Battalion, 325th Airborne Battalion Combat Team, Vicenza, Italy, during the Gulf crisis and deployed with the battalion to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. His brigade command was the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division; served as Assistant Division Commander, 1st Armored Division, in Bosnia-Herzegovina; served as the 66th Commandant at West Point; commanded 1st Infantry Division, the "Big Red One," in Wurzburg, Germany, which provided the first U.S. ground forces into Kosovo, Serbia; served as the Deputy Commander (Forward), Combined Forces Command, U.S. Central Command during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

STAFF ASSIGNMENTS: A tour with the United Nations as operations officer for Observer Group Lebanon and a tour in the Office of the Chief of the Staff, U.S. Army. European staff tours include assignments in both the Southern European Task Force and Headquarters, U.S. Army Europe.

DECORATIONS: Defense Distinguished Service Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster; Distinguished Service Medal; Defense Superior Service Medal; the Legion of Merit with five Oak Leaf Clusters; and the Bronze Star.



651 million people

27 countries

7 major languages

12+ major religious groups

18+ major ethnic groups

65% of the world's known oil reserves



St. Petersburg Times reporter Paul de la Garza and photographer John Pendygraft met up with Gen. John P. Abizaid in Doha, Qatar, CentCom's regional headquarters, on July 18.

The trip had been under discussion nearly three years.

The Times joined Abizaid in a series of briefings in Qatar, the northern Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq. Abizaid's staff also provided background briefings.

At the end of the five-day trip, Abizaid granted the newspaper a one-on-one interview in Qatar and a subsequent telephone interview in Tampa.


[Last modified September 1, 2006, 09:19:49]

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