Ex-CENTCOM chief Abizaid assesses US options, actions in Middle East

Retired Gen. John Abizaid


By RAY GRONBERG | The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C. | Published: October 21, 2015

DURHAM, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — The U.S. can’t have any decisive influence in the Middle East without using ground forces there, most likely as a raiding force to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, a former commander of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan says.

The terrorist group’s advantage, versus most of the region’s other players, is that it can draw on “committed infantry” who’ve turned to religious radicalism in the quest for a better place in the 21st century, retired U.S. Army Gen. John Abizaid said Tuesday during a talk at Duke University.

And everyone needs to understand that the “post-World War I, European-imposed order of the Middle East is breaking down,” he said. “In fact, it has broken down.”

Nowadays, a drive from Beirut to Baghdad instead of crossing a couple of borders will pass through territories controlled by “33 different sects,” said Abizaid, who led the military’s Central Command as a four-star general from 2003 to 2007.

“Some of them, if you’re American, you’ll only drive through once,” he added. “It’ll be a one-way trip.”

Abizaid spoke at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Duke political science professor Peter Feaver, once a national security aide to former President George W. Bush, moderated.

The general said radical religious groups have gained adherents in the Middle East because traditional, nationalist ideologies and governments have failed. “It was inevitable that people would start to look for a different solution,” he said.

Despite 9/11, and the continued importance of the region’s oil resources to the “global commons,” most Americans haven’t studied and don’t really “know this enemy,” not like they knew the key leaders of its World War II adversaries, he said.

Meanwhile, “for a lot of good political and economic reasons,” the U.S. is “less capable” of using force in the region, he said, later taking issue with force-structure decisions that in his view are leaving the Army short-staffed.

“I understand the president’s problem about having to choose between guns or butter,” Abizaid said. “But this period of uncertainty in the global environment sets the stage for a very bad outcome if we continue on the course we’re on. Other than that, things are fine.”

That outcome could be as little as 10 to 15 years away, given how the Islamic State has been able to control ground and gain adherents both through its use of violence and the counter-example it offers to the corrupt and ineffectual governments that preceded it, he said.

Without a counterbalancing force, the likely result is a “regional free-for-all” involving the Islamic State, Turkey, Iran, the Russians and other players, he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war is most likely a calculated attempt to secure as much of the county as possible for the Assad regime, and “a place at the table” for Russia itself in future diplomacy about the region, Abizaid said.

The Russians “have something we don’t, reliable [allied] infantry, that they can use their air power with,” he said. “And they’re not looking at surgically precise targeting of the enemy. In many ways, I’m not sure they’re necessarily wrong.”

He added that the U.S. nonetheless “might be able to find some common ground” with the Russians in the region, though it should understand Russian political and military elites believe the U.S. is exerting too much influence too close to their home.

“They say, ‘You have had your foot on our neck for long enough, you have moved into the near-abroad and we’re not going to put up with it anymore,’” Abizaid said, summarizing his conversations the past couple of years with high-level Russian military retirees.

He added that he doesn’t see the solution being a return to ground-force commitments the U.S. mounted in the Middle East in the 2000s.

But the U.S. likely does need to “adopt a raiding strategy that hits ISIS hard and prevents them from using their territory as a safe haven,” he said.

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