Given the importance of the media front, Abizaid is frustrated that Arab journalists haven't provided a more critical picture of life in places where Islamic insurgents have gained control, such as Fallujah. He's convinced that if ordinary Arabs could see the cruelty and repression of these Taliban-style jihadists, they would reject them. Indeed, at several stops during our trip, he urged his listeners to push Arab media to report more about the insurgents' brutal tactics.
"They are the most despicable enemy I've ever seen," he told European and Arab leaders who gathered in Bahrain to talk about Persian Gulf security. "They operate from mosques, they behead people, they have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims."
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)
Abizaid believes the winning strategy, in Iraq and across the Islamic world, is to isolate the Salafist vanguard from ordinary Muslims who want the better, freer life that prosperity and connectedness can bring. That means breaching the gaps between rich nations and poor ones, and preventing terrorists from establishing bases of operations, in the way bin Laden did in Afghanistan. "The clear military lesson of Afghanistan is that we cannot allow the enemy to establish a safe haven anywhere," he says.
One of Abizaid's top deputies, Vice Adm. David Nichols, summarizes the nature of the Salafist threat. Nichols, who commands the 5th Fleet, asserts that the enemy is mounting "a cultural, not just a physical attack." For enemy leaders, the clash of civilizations is the organizing principle of life, Nichols argues. They tell Muslims that there are only two camps, and that "peaceful coexistence is not possible." The goal of America and its allies, says Nichols, must be to convince the average Muslim that the jihadists are wrong. It's not "us" vs. "them," but a connected world in which everyone will gain by isolating and destroying the extremist fringe.
This strategy of isolating the religious extremists has been embraced by Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi -- to the point of making contact with Baathists who were part of Saddam Hussein's regime and are now on the fringes of the insurgency. It reflects a judgment by Allawi -- one that Abizaid would certainly share -- that the Baathists in the long run will make an accommodation with America and the modern world. The Salafist extremists, in contrast, will never do so.
My travels with Abizaid ended with a stop in Mosul, at the same camp hit by a suicide bomber last week. Mosul is a case study in what America is facing in Iraq, and in the Long War. Over the past year, the city has gone from a model of stability to a new Fallujah, where insurgents have used terror tactics to halt collaboration with U.S. forces. The measure of success here will be the return of normal life. "It won't ever be over completely, where you wake up one morning and the enemy has surrendered," says Abizaid. "But one day you'll wake up and there will be more food, more security, more stability."
That's what victory would look like in Abizaid's Long War, too. In the broad arc of the world where Centcom operates, life would feel modern, connected, free, relaxed, ordinary. It would feel like a hand that is no longer clenched in a fist. It's a fight where the Muslims masses would win, without the United States losing. But this past week, those images of connectedness and success seemed a long, long way off.
David Ignatius is a columnist for The Post.