WASHINGTON — Peering through wire rimmed glasses, America's top commander in the Mideast, Gen. John Abizaid, lays out the difficulties ahead with the clarity of a chess master studying a three-dimensional board.
In Iraq, violence will rise as terrorists work to foment civil war before an interim government takes power in July. In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents are expected to step up attacks on key leadership and Afghan security forces as summer election near. In the broader war on terrorism, General Abizaid sees the greatest threat of all: growing Islamic extremism that could lead to the "Talibanization" of nations such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen.
Yet the soft-spoken Californian, known for nuanced thinking and speaking his mind, remains optimistic that in time moderation will prevail. This candid but confident assessment, given this week before a congressional committee, is vintage Abizaid. His sophistication, coupled with straight-from-the-shoulder realism, is producing a view of the troubled region often lacking from the Pentagon podium, analysts say. He's also changing the tone of the way the US military in the region is run. Overseeing 217,000 troops undergoing a massive rotation in a volatile swath of the world stretching from the Himalayas to the Horn of Africa, Abizaid faces one of the most complex military challenges of his post-Vietnam generation.
In an early display of candor and independence, Abizaid last July flatly contradicted his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, by declaring that US troops faced a "classical guerrilla-type campaign" in Iraq. And in contrast to his blunt-spoken Texas predecessor, Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded the swift armored assault on Baghdad, many experts believe Abizaid's subtler approach is better suited to fighting the messy counterinsurgency that has unfolded since Saddam Hussein's fall.
In a reflection of his leadership style, Abizaid dismantled General Franks's Commander's Action Group (CAG) after taking the reins of Central Command last July. That small group was widely feared at Central Command headquarters as a punitive body looking for chinks in the armor. "Franks ruled by fear," says one military analyst familiar with the organization.
In its place, Abizaid created a brain trust renamed the Commander's Advisory Group. Filled with less than a dozen officers selected for their expertise and maverick views, the group serves as Abizaid's personal think tank. In another indication of open-mindedness, he named as head of the new group Col. H. R. McMaster, a decorated Gulf War veteran who wrote the 1997 book "Dereliction of Duty" about "the lies that led to Vietnam." Colonel McMaster left last week to assume command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
"Abizaid is a firm believer in powering down to subordinates," says retired Lt. Gen. Dan Christman, who as West Point superintendent chose Abizaid to serve as his commandant of cadets. "Frankly, I found him the most mentally agile of any officer I've met."
In many other respects, Abizaid breaks with the stereotypic mold of four-star Army officers, according to some who know him. Although a competitive 1973 West Point graduate and combat veteran of the first Gulf War and 1983 US invasion of Grenada, where he lead a Ranger rifle company, Abizaid shuns the swaggering, back-slapping image popular among many of his peers. When he talks about military campaigns, he leaves out the usual football metaphors and wanted-poster analogies. Instead, for instance, he speaks of "sine waves of violence" in Iraq and the need for a long-term US presence that is "effective but not overbearing."
Even more unusual, as an American of Lebanese descent with a Harvard degree in Middle Eastern studies, Abizaid is one of the few foreign-area officers to rise to the rank of four-star general and "bridge the gap between warrior and intellectual," says General Christman, who as military adviser to the State Department in the mid-1990s often sought Abizaid's advice on the Mideast peace process.
Indeed, Abizaid often stresses the cross-cultural imperatives of the war on terrorism, and the importance of nonmilitary remedies.
"What will win the global war on terrorism will be people that can cross the cultural divide," he told a congressional committee this week. It's an idea often overlooked, he said, by "people [who] want to build a new firebase or a new national training center for tanks." "The war against terrorism is a war largely of intelligence and perceptions," he noted. As a result, "it is important to tailor and temper our combat activities to cultural sensitivities and cultural concerns of the moderates as we pursue the terrorists."
In a concrete example of that sensitivity, Abizaid has ordered US commanders in Iraq to begin moving their troops out of symbolic locations, such as the Baghdad International Airport and Mr. Hussein's ornate palaces as the July handover approaches. Over the next year, he said US troops will move out of many public spaces into temporary barracks, consolidating the number of camps around Baghdad alone from 44 to 11.
"We want to bring down our footprint in Iraq as quickly as possible," he said, noting the "low tolerance" for a major foreign military presence in the region. If the summer transition to Iraqi rule goes smoothly, he said he could consider a troop reduction in the fall. Alternatively, civil war or another major emergency, while unlikely, could lead him to increase forces in Iraq.
Moreover, a drawdown of US forces will remain impossible until Iraq can establish its own security apparatus, including a national chain of command and effective defense ministry.
"There essentially is no strong Iraqi [military] leadership," ready to defend the country by July 1, and as a result Iraqi security forces could remain under the operational control of a multinational command, he said.
Abizaid plans to create a new position for a US commander to oversee Iraq, freeing himself to focus more broadly on the Central Command region. With a high-octane schedule, Abizaid now spends 80 percent of his time in the region, jetting between troop visits and meetings with military and political leaders in the region's 25 countries. Since assuming his post, he's only spent a few weeks at Central Command's base in Tampa, Fla. With his daughter and son in law also deployed last year, he jokes that he had "a family reunion in the Middle East."