A Soldier's Soldier, Outflanked
Supporters Say Politics, Insurgency Tied Retiring Commander's Hands
Thursday, December 21, 2006; Page A14
Gen. John P. Abizaid rose to become the top American commander for the Middle East in July 2003 with impeccable credentials for the job: A Lebanese American who speaks Arabic with a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard, Abizaid was considered a soldier's soldier. He led a Ranger company into battle in Grenada in 1983 and commanded an airborne battalion during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
But Abizaid's announcement yesterday that he will retire in March after almost four years as a chief architect of U.S. Iraq strategy comes as violence drives civilian and military casualties there to record highs and as officials broadly say the U.S. military campaign is at a stalemate.
The departure of the general, who has won wide respect for his candid advice to the administration as the head of U.S. Central Command, was expected and is not seen as an indication of his own displeasure or that of superiors over his performance. "I think the time is right, and it has nothing to do with dissatisfaction," Abizaid told reporters in Baghdad.
"After 50 months out here, I think it's okay to think about retiring," he said.
His decision creates an opportunity for President Bush, with the recommendation of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, to name a commander who will take a fresh approach as they weigh alternative military strategies.
Supporters portray Abizaid, 55, as a brilliant commander who did his best, despite constraints from Washington, to adapt the U.S. military to fight an unanticipated guerrilla war -- which he was among the first to identify -- and later the unexpected outbreak of sectarian violence.
"Understanding how difficult the job is, nobody's done it better than John Abizaid," said a Pentagon official who as an Army general worked with Abizaid.
Yet critics say Abizaid has placed too much emphasis on Arab sensitivity to foreign occupation, and therefore never demanded enough U.S. troops to stabilize the country. "He was too smart by half," another U.S. officer said.
"The bottom line is we are losing a war in his theater on his watch," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, saying Abizaid's popularity has dwindled in recent months as the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan have deteriorated. "We need a fresh approach."
Abizaid made clear his continued opposition to a major surge of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the current 140,000, arguing that it would perpetuate a mentality of dependency by Iraqi forces and increase resistance among Iraq's population.
The widespread expectation within the military has been that Abizaid will be succeeded by Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who led the 101st Airborne Division in the invasion and early occupation of Iraq and later returned to head the effort to train Iraqi army and police forces. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is also expected to leave his post in the spring, and some Pentagon officials predict he will be followed by Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis. Casey is another candidate to replace Abizaid, one senior military official said. But all those moves will be dependent on the approval of Gates, whose views on the personnel changes are not well known.
Moreover, Abizaid's replacement will face the same immediate constraints: overstretched U.S. ground forces and the need to be able to respond to other contingencies in the region, such as a further escalation of fighting in Afghanistan or a serious showdown with Iran.