Gen. John Abizaid probably commands the most potent military force in history. The troops of his Central Command are arrayed across the jagged crescent of the Middle East, from Egypt to Pakistan, in an overwhelming projection of U.S. power. He travels with his own mini-government: a top State Department officer to manage diplomacy; a senior CIA officer to oversee intelligence; a retinue of generals and admirals to supervise operations and logistics. If there is a modern Imperium Americanum, Abizaid is its field general.
I traveled this month with Abizaid as he visited Iraq and other areas of his command. Over several days, I heard him discuss his strategy for what he calls the "Long War" to contain Islamic extremism in Centcom's turbulent theater of operations. We talked about the current front in Iraq, and the longer-term process of change in the Middle East, which Abizaid views as the ultimate strategic challenge.
The weight of history: Gen. John Abizaid, at center with the four stars on his helmet, sees parallels between the ferment in the Middle East today and Europe in the 19th century that have shaped his strategy for what he calls the Long War.
(Robert Burns -- The AP)
"We control the air, the sea and the ground militarily," Abizaid told one audience, and in conventional terms, he's unquestionably right. From its headquarters near the huge new U.S. airbase in Qatar, Centcom's military reach stretches in every direction: To the west, the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet has its base in Bahrain; to the north, the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman and its task force are steaming on patrol in the Persian Gulf; to the east, more than 17,000 troops are working to stabilize postwar Afghanistan; to the south, about 1,000 troops are keeping a lid on the Horn of Africa. And to the northwest lies the bloody battlefield of Iraq, where nearly 150,000 of Abizaid's soldiers are fighting a determined insurgency.
For all of America's military might, the Long War that has begun in the Middle East poses some tough strategic questions. What is the nature of the enemy? If the United States is so powerful, why is it having such difficulty in Iraq? What will victory look like, in Iraq and elsewhere in the Islamic world? And how long will the conflict take?
The costs of war came home for America this past week. On Monday, President Bush conceded that the Iraq insurgents "are having an effect," and that U.S. efforts to train Iraqi security forces have had only "mixed" success. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber savaged a mess hall in Mosul in the deadliest single attack since the war began 21 months ago. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to fend off calls for his resignation because of setbacks in Iraq.
It was a week that focused attention on gut-level issues, reminiscent of the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago: Why are we in Iraq? What kind of conflict is the United States fighting there? How can we win it? Abizaid offers the best answers to these questions I've heard from any official in the U.S. government. In addition to being the military's top commander in the Middle East, he has an intellectual and emotional feel for the region. He's of Arab ancestry -- his forebears came to the United States from Lebanon in the 1870s -- and he learned to speak Arabic during a stint in Jordan 25 years ago. Like many of the best U.S. Army officers for generations, he's a well-read man who analyzes contemporary issues against the background of history.
Abizaid believes that the Long War is only in its early stages. Victory will be hard to measure, he says, because the enemy won't wave a white flag and surrender one day. Success will instead be an incremental process of modernization of the Islamic world, which will gradually find its own accommodation with the global economy and open political systems.
America's enemies in this Long War, he argues, are what he calls "Salafist jihadists." That's his term for the Muslim fundamentalists who use violent tactics to try to re-create what they imagine was the pure and perfect Islamic government of the era of the prophet Muhammad, who is sometimes called the "Salaf." Osama bin Laden is the best known of the Salafist extremists, but Abizaid argues that the movement is much broader and more diffuse than al Qaeda. It's a loose network of like-minded individuals who use 21st century-technology to spread their vision of a 7th-century paradise.
Salafist preachers see themselves as part of a vanguard whose mission is to radicalize other Muslims to overthrow their leaders. Abizaid likens them to Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders. During a gathering of foreign-policy experts in Washington last October, he posed a haunting question: What would you have done in 1890 if you had known the ruin this Bolshevik vanguard would bring? At another point, he urged the audience to think of today's Islamic world, wracked by waves of violence, as akin to Europe in the revolutionary year of 1848. The Arab world's spasms of anarchy and terror, like those in Europe 150 years ago, are part of a process of social change -- in which an old order is crumbling, and a new one is struggling to be born.
Abizaid's historical analogies are helpful because they stretch our thinking. People tend to see current problems as unique and overwhelming, and that has been especially true for America in the traumatic years since Sept. 11, 2001. But through the long lens of history, contemporary problems come into better focus. The wealthy Saudi jihadist bin Laden begins to seem a bit like 19th-century anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, who similarly wanted to use revolutionary violence to purge what he viewed as a corrupt order. On this broad canvas of historical change, the time horizon isn't years, but decades.
Abizaid didn't draw for me any specific lessons from this history, but several conclusions seem obvious: If the United States is fighting an ideological vanguard similar to the Bolsheviks -- whose leaders will never surrender or negotiate -- then it will have to capture or kill them. That suggests a dirty, drawn-out conflict in which each side tests the other's will and staying power. It's not the sort of war that democracies are usually good at fighting, but among Abizaid's team of advisers, you hear the same phrase repeated over and over: "A lot of bad guys are going to have to die."
Yet because the battlefield is society itself, the United States cannot think of the struggle in purely military terms. Centcom's 1,000 troops who are digging wells and performing other reconstruction tasks in the Horn of Africa may be a better model for success than the 150,000 soldiers hunkered down in Iraq. And because it is a war of transformation, comparable to Europe's hundred-year process of modernization in the 19th century, the United States must above all be patient.
Abizaid argues that this enemy is especially dangerous because it has fused an atavistic Salafist ideology with the most modern tools of technology. "The enemy has a virtual connectivity we haven't seen before with guerrilla groups," he says. "They use the Internet to pass along techniques, tactics, procedures, advice." He believes the jihadists have been clever in using the global media -- both to spread their message among followers and to intimidate adversaries. Indeed, the media are their best weapon.
The Salafist vanguard seeks victory through what Abizaid calls "weapons of mass effect" -- the 9/11 attacks, the suicide bombings in Baghdad, the gruesome beheadings in Fallujah -- which seek to destabilize the United States and its allies through the media. "We have nothing to fear from this enemy other than its ability to create panic," he argues. "This enemy is like water -- it seeks an unguarded path. They'll go for the place they can use a weapon of mass effect -- and gain a media victory."