HH: I welcome now General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, calling this morning from, I believe, Qatar. General, welcome. It’s good to have you.
JA: Well, thank you, Hugh. I’m happy to be here.
HH: Can you begin, General, by giving us an overview of the situation in Iraq as of mid-August, 2006?
JA: The situation in Iraq right now, as you’ve seen, of course, there’s an awful lot of sectarian violence, particularly in the Baghdad area. We’ve found it necessary to move additional troops down into the Baghdad area by extending some forces that we were going to redeploy to help shore up some of the work that the Iraqi Security Forces are doing. We’re putting additional Iraqi Security Forces in the field there as well. It’s very clear to all of us that have been serving in this region that Baghdad’s the key to Iraq, and that we’ve got to get the levels of sectarian violence down in order for Iraq to stabilize. We’re confident it can be done. We’ve seen some changes already that are somewhat positive. It’s still too early to say, but the combination of Iraqi Security Forces and our forces, along with some measures being taken by the new government, we’re confident can, over time, move Baghdad in the right direction.
HH: General Abizaid, are you confident as well that victory is possible in Iraq? And what will that look like?
JA: Yeah, no, I’m very confident that victory’s possible, not only in Iraq, but in the broader Middle East, if you consider victory being a Middle East where extremism is not tolerated, and doesn’t have a chance of going mainstream in the region. I certainly think that in Iraq, there’ll be violence after the time that American forces depart. I think that the sectarian issues are deep, but they don’t need to be fatal. I believe that over time, as you build institutional capacity and the Iraqi government, and especially in the Iraqi armed forces, that Iraqis will be able to do more and more of the day to day security work. And as that happens, we’ll be able to bring our forces down. A lot of people…
HH: Do you have enough troops, General, to do the mission, to achieve that stability and victory?
JA: Yeah, Hugh. We have over 200,000 American troops in the Middle East. That’s down from a high of 375,000 back in ’03. But more importantly, there’s over 275,000 Iraqi troops, 70,000 Afghan troops that are fighting directly with us, and then you go to places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where they’re fighting against the extremists with quite a few troops as well, and througout the region as well. So if it was my opinion that the people in the region weren’t willing to fight against the extremists on their own, then I would have a different conclusion than what I just gave you. But all indications are that the people out here are not interested in having their countries turn into Taliban-like states. But on the other hand, Shiia extremism and Sunni extremism in the region are very strong, and we need to help the states help themselves against this. And at the same time, we’ve got to keep the flow of natural resources moving through the Straits of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and the Babel Mandeb, which take an awful lot of air and naval power.
HH: General, what do you estimate the size of the Sunni insurgency, and of the Shiia extreme militias to be in Iraq?
JA: Well, the Sunni insurgency is…it’s difficult to put a number on it, but I’d say it’s certainly less than 20,000 active, and the Shiia militias that are actively confronting the coalition forces are less than about 5,000. But using numbers in an insurgency, and where sectarian violence is taking place, really, really puts it in more of a conventional footing than is necessary. You know, the numbers ebb and flow, based on what’s going on. For example, after the Samarra mosque bombing, certainly the number of people that were willing to confront the Shiia militias from the Sunni community were much higher than we’d seen before.
HH: Is Syria allowing jihadists free passage into Iraq, General Abizaid?
JA: I’m not sure that I’d say Syria is allowing free passage, but certainly, passage has taken place through there. The numbers of foreign fighters that we see moving through Syria are probably somewhere between fifty and a hundred a month, which is down from what we saw as a high of about 100-150. You know, what makes the jihadists that are foreign fighters that come into Iraq dangerous are not their numbers. It’s that they’re willing to be suicide bombers. As a matter of fact, the Iraqi Sunni insurgents generally only want to pull up suicide bombers into the sector, and they’re very, very dangerous in that regard, much more so than their numbers would indicate.
HH: Are coalition forces increasing in their ability to secure that border, General? Or is it simply that there are fewer people who want to come across that accounts for the decline in numbers?
JA: Well, I think there’s certainly a certain amount of pressure that has come from the Syrian security forces, not because they want to help us, but that they realize that these Sunni extremists are a threat to the Syrian regime as well. The Iraqi border control, and the Iraqi government forces, military forces and police forces, are certainly more numerous than they used to be. But again, you know, the primary problem that exists inside Iraq is an Iraqi problem, more so than a jihadist problem, although there’s plenty of money that comes from outside, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan as well.
HH: We have seen in the Hezbollah-Israeli battle obvious signs of Iranian support for Hezbollah. Do you see Iran supplying surrogates inside of Iraq, General?
JA: I see Iran supplying expertise, equipment, and training to Shiia extremist militia groups. Although they hide their hand very, very well, there’s no doubt that on the one side, you’ll get Iranian government officials talking about how they want to stabilize, and help stabilize Iraq. And on the other hand, you get their intelligence forces, the MOIS, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds force people, actively participating, again, it’s hard to say what the numbers are, but there’s no doubt that the IRGC, Quds force in particlar, is playing a very unhelpful role with some of the Shiia groups.
HH: I don’t know what that is, General. Can you explain a little bit what that force is?
JA: Well, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds force is a terrorists training, paramilitary and terrorist organization group, sponsored by the Iranian government. They would have a different way of describing it than that.
HH: Is it active in other places besides Iraq?
JA: Yeah, you certainly see the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds force people training people in Lebanon’s Hezbollah. You see some presence of them in passing weapons back and forth, and money back and forth to Lebanese Hezbollah. And they certainly trained some Lebanese Hezbollah fighters inside Iran. They also train other groups, especially what they would consider groups that are interested in Iranian Revolutionary thinking, and you see this in groups such as some of the Hamas paramilitary people that are operating inside Palestine and Israel.
HH: General, are you concerned with that particular brand of Shiia extremism that is called the 12th Imam branch, or the hidden imam branch, and that their fatalism, or their theology might make them less susceptible to deterrence than other enemies the United States has faced in the past?
JA: You know, Hugh, Shiia mainstream Islam, and Sunni mainstream Islam, in my view, certainly don’t represent a threat to the United States. But when it is couple with the revolutionary ideology, as purveyed by the current government of Iran, it does represent a long-term threat to our interests in this region. And Sunni extremism, as represented by people such as Osama bin Laden, certainly represents a threat to the United States of America, not only in the region, but globally. So I think it’s very important for us to give the moderates in the region the chance to shape their own future. We’ve got to help the moderates in the region face down the extremists, wherever they show up. And it’s a big challenge, it’s a long challenge, and it requires not only military power, but a lot of diplomatic and economic power as well.
HH: Is it all one war, General? Afghanistan, Iran, the Hezbollah-Israeli battle?
JA: Well, from where I sit, it’s all connected. And whether it’s one war or not can be debated from a political perspective. But from a military perspective, as I look at it, the…all of the lines lead back to one or two sources. They either lead back to Sunni-sponsored extremism, or to Shiia-sponsored Iranian extremism. And sometimes, on occasional points in the battlefield, they even cooperate with one another. So it’s certainly connected. No doubt in my mind.
HH: Now General Abizaid, as you look at the Iranian military force posture, is it a significant and sophisticated military force? Or is it simply the benefit of extremism at work, unimpeded by any home grown opposition?
JA: No, it’s a large military force. It’s significant. It’s certainly capable of providing a defense in depth of Iran to any invader that might come in. It has the ability to close the Straits of Hormuz for a short period of time if they were to choose to do that, and they have the ability to use their terrorist arm that you see, for example, such as in Hezbollah, Hamas and elsewhere. And then they also have a significant missile threat that is able to range most of the countries of the Arabian Gulf region, and range as far as Israel. And of course, they’re working very hard to, in my mind, to develop a nuclear weapon.
HH: What would it do to the strategic posture of the situation, General, if in fact Iran became nuclear capable?
JA: I think a nuclear armed Iran in the region is very, very unstabilizing for the region. It would create a regional problem with all of the other major countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It would certainly create a problem for the Turks, it would create a problem for any country that’s within range. And certainly, it creates a problem for Israel, as you couple what Ahmadinejead has said about the survival of Israel in the long run. And as long as revolutionary Iran continues to have what I would call extremist tendencies, it’s hard to envision how you could believe that they would keep their weapons to themselves.
HH: Backing away from Iran for a second, and Iraq, General, what’s the situation in Afghanistan, which too often escapes prolonged study nowadays?
JA: Afghanistan has a lot of fighting going on in the south, where the Taliban, in the Kandahar area, has contested the new NATO forces that are moving in there. NATO has taken over the southern area. That gives them about 3/4’s of the country in which they operate militarily. They’ve got around 23,000 forces, and it was very clear that as they came into that region, that the Taliban would contest that region. It’s also being contested because it tends to be a big drug growing region down in the Helmand Province region, and they don’t like having NATO troops down there for obvious reasons. So there’s a lot of violence in Afghanistan, and in the east, where American forces primarily operate, there’s cooperation between the Taliban and al Qaeda, although very seldom do you see al Qaeda operating openly in Afghanistan these days. The Afghan national government has put together an army of about 70,000 with our help, of course. It’s maturing, it’s a lot better than it used to be. It’s participating in a lot more different actions, not only with NATO, but with us. And we’re confident that while there’ll be a lot of fighting in the Afghan area, that the…President Karzai’s government will continue to stabilize.
HH: General Abizaid, as you look out five years in both Afghanistan and Iraq, what’s the best case scenario that you see for those countries, as we turn into the new decade?
JA: I think five years from now, Afghanistan is continuing to stabilize. There’s an awful lot of work, as you well know, that has to be done in Afghanistan. It’s a country totally devastated by too much war, too much civil war, too much production of poppies, et cetera. And so, it will need the international community’s help for a long time to get on its feet. Iraq, I believe, will begin to stabilize, slowly but surely, and you’ll see the Iraqi government taking on much more of what needs to be done. And in five years, Iraq will be responsible primarily for its own external security, and you’ll see probably American trainers and NATO trainers remaining there to help them. I also see a growing problem with Iran’s internal stability, as people there become less and less satisfied with the quality of life that their government’s given them. And of course, you have the other traditional problems in the region that require some progress. The Arab-Israeli issue requires, I think, some progress in the peace arena, and some international help there. And you certainly will see continued instability in places where the extremists continue to operate, such as in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In many ways, the long term health and prosperity of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are bigger strategic problems for us, and we need to do all we can to help the legitimate governments there fight against the extremists the way that they’ve been doing.
HH: Well, you’re talking about a long, long commitment, General. And as you well know, voices across the political spectrum are starting to use the Vietnam analogy. Thomas Ricks comes up to it close in his new book, Fiasco. Have you read that yet, General?
JA: No, I’ll tell you, Hugh. I’ve got a lot of things to do, and usually read about all the mistakes we’ve made isn’t one of them.
HH: (laughing) Well, what about that Vietnam analogy, which is so corrosive. I know you’re a ’73 graduate of West Point, and a combat veteran of Granada and the first Gulf War. So you’re not the Vietnam era. But is that a wrong analogy to apply to this situation?
JA: Well, there are things that you can apply to the situation that makes sense about Vietnam, and then there’s things that really aren’t applicable. It’s like any sort of historical parallel. You have to look at it carefully. Certainly, if you look at Iraq, Iraq doesn’t have the external sort of support problem feeding the insurgency the same way that existed with our forces fighting in South Vietnam, with the huge amount of support coming down from North Vietnam, supported by two big powers, the Soviet Union and China. That gives us an opportunity to stabilize Iraq and to get Iraq moving in the right direction, provided that the legitimate powers in the region accept it in the direction that it’s going. I think it is a long-term struggle in the Middle East against extremism. And it’s extremely important that we win that fight by helping the people in the region help themselves. Because if extremism ever becomes mainstream in this part of the world, then I think our problems will pale by comparison to what we currently have.
HH: General Abizad, is the American media, and I understand fully your commitment to 1st Amendment freedom, as every member of the American military is always quick to say. But is the American media making your job easier or harder in securing stability, and in ending extremism in the region?
JA: Well, I don’t know that I want to characterize what the American media is doing or not doing, other than to say it would be a huge help for everybody if we started talking about our enemies out here, what they stand for, what they want, what their vision of the world is, why they’re dangerous, and how this is a worthy fight to fight at this level now, rather than letting it wait to get worse.
HH: What is their vision of the world, the enemy, General?
JA: And I think that’s the unspoken story, it’s the enemy.
JA: I’m sorry, Hugh. I didn’t understand…
HH: What is their vision, the enemy’s vision of the world?
JA: Well certainly, if you look at al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, all you have to do is go on to one of their website. But you see it is to drive out the United States from the region, overthrow the regional powers, take over the Sunni Arab world first, and then the Muslim world, and install a Sharia type of government that would look very much like the government that they installed under the Taliban, when the Taliban ran Afghanistan. And if you want to know what that looks like, it’s executions in the soccer stadium, no rights for women anywhere, Sharia law strictly enforced, no music, you name it. And the people in the region really don’t want that kind of a future for themselves, or for their kids.
HH: And the vision of the Iranian revolutionary regime?
JA: Well, the Iranian revolutionary regime has a different sort of a notion, but it’s one that’s primarily a world in which Iranian influence and power call the shots in the Middle East, and done so under the current Shiia revolutionary precepts that you see played out in Tehran, which again, is very, very restrictive. Not as restrictive as what Osama bin Laden brings, but certainly more restrictive than the people like. When you ask Iranians whether or not they approve of this government, they’d just as soon get onto some other kind of government that’s more liberal.
HH: A new force has risen in Mogadishu, General. And how much does that concern you? And what steps are being undertaken to contain it?
JA: Well, it certainly concerns me. It concerns me, because the United Islamic Courts represent a theological movement, not necessarily far removed from the thinking of al Qaeda. They have claimed that they have no links, but we certainly know that there are some historical linkages between people that are high up in the UIC and between people that have helped work the Horn of Africa for al Qaeda, and that concerns us greatly. Whenever one of these extremist movements starts to gain mainstream anywhere, even in a place like Somalia, it needs to be a real warning for the international community.
HH: General, I’m aware of your time, so I don’t want to abuse it. I’ll do two more questions, unless you want to go longer. I’ll go as long as you want, but I know you’re busy. Is the issue of pre-invasion WMD in Iraq closed in your mind, General?
JA: Well, I always hesitate, Hugh, to get involved in this issue that’s become so highly politicized. Let me just say the issue of WMD is probably the single most important issue in the region. And every day, I deal with the intelligence of looking over what al Qaeda talks about. And as a matter of fact, all you have to do is go to their websites. They are looking for safe havens so they can gain time to develop WMD of some sort, whether it’s chemical, biological or nuclear. They have the intent to use it, they have stated it openly, over and over again, and were it not for the fact that these people are trying to acquire WMD and intend to use it against us, and the technological capability in the world today might allow that to happen, I’m not so sure that the effort out here would need to be as big as it is. But we’ve got to keep these guys on the defensive. We can’t let them get a safe haven, and we absolutely can’t let them get WMD in their hands.
HH: And General, that leads me to my last question. World Trade Center is in theaters now in the United States. It reminds people of five years ago. How great is the threat to the home front from those WMD that you’ve discussed just now? And do the American people fully appreciate that threat?
JA: I can only say that as I…when I go home and spend time where my headquarters is in Tampa, or when I spend time where I’m from on the West Coast, it’s hard to really notice that there’s much of a war going on, thinking that there’s a World War II level of effort going on in the middle of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa, is hard for most people to appreciate. I think it’s important that people understand the dangers of not contesting this area. If we let the extremists get embedded, if we let the extremists gain ground, if we let the extremists have time and resources, then I believe they’ll eventually insinuate their way into the mainstream. They could then gain territory, gain time, gain weapons of mass destruction. And over time, they’d move us to the war that we’re all, the big war that we’re all trying to avoid. So I can only tell you that what we’re doing out here is very, very important for our security. We were actually fighting these people well before 9/11, and it takes a little bit of time and effort, but people need to educate themselves about why we’re fighting who we’re fighting, and what it means if we back away from them. I think our young troops that are out here fighting are doing a wonderful job, and an absolutely necessary job. And I’d also like to say, just to kind of close up, Hugh, is that I don’t believe it’s necessary to stay out here in this huge force size forever. We can, over time, get our own forces down as long as the moderates in the region are willing to stand up, take responsbility, and move against these extremists on their own. So helping them help themselves is really the key to our success. I believe we’re doing that in a lot of places. It’s a hard fight, it’s a long fight, but with patience and perseverence, we can do it. We certainly have got the courage of our troops to rely upon, and they won’t let us down.
HH: General John Abizaid, thanks for the time this morning, thank you for your service, and for the service of all the men and women in the United States military that you command, and we look forward to having you back again, General.
JA: Thank you, sir. Bye.
End of interview.