Abizaid Discusses Defeating Extremist Ideology in CENTCOM Region
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, June 13, 2006 – Defeating an ideology is much more difficult than defeating a physical threat, but that is at the heart of U.S. Central Command's strategy in this region, the command's chief, Army Gen. John Abizaid, said in an interview today. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. CENTCOM, is in Iraq, where he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and newly appointed Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim.
It is no shock that al Qaeda and associated groups are the main threat facing the United States, the general said. "This ideology backed by (Osama) bin Laden, (Ayman al-) Zawahiri and, until recently, (Abu Musab al-) Zarqawi has to be foremost in our minds as we operate in the region," Abizaid said. But al Qaeda is only one threat in a region that encompasses 27 countries from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa. "There are many threats to the peace in the region," Abizaid said. "It's a region of many insurgencies; it's a region of endemic corruption; it's a region or criminality, of drug trafficking, of tribal violence, of some state-to-state violence."
The Central Command area also is a region of great economic disparities. In Qatar, for example, the average citizen makes more than $30,000 per year. In Ethiopia and Afghanistan, the average is around $300. Part of the mission in the region is to continue to keep the pressure on al Qaeda and associated groups, but the U.S. also must help stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan and help two key allies -- Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- as they help themselves by combating al Qaeda. Globalization is causing many changes in the region, Abizaid said. "In many ways, I think of this as one of the first major battles in the era of globalization, where modernity clashes with traditional values in a way that leads to violence," he said.
But not all is bleak in the region. The population rejects the ideology of al Qaeda, which calls on Muslims to re-establish the Caliphate formed after the prophet Muhammad's death. The Caliphate was the era of Islam's ascendancy from the death of Muhammad to the 13th century. Islamic terrorists have said they want to create a vast region led by one supreme Muslim ruler. "The people don't want to go back to the 6th century," Abizaid said. "They don't want to live under the rule they experienced under the Taliban. They don't want bin Laden to win. There is clear preference expressed by people in both Iraq and Afghanistan to vote. The fact that they voted is their way of reaching out to the future."
Al Qaeda responds in the only way it knows -- through intimidation. Al Qaeda uses car bombs, suicide vests and other weapons to kill indiscriminately. "They have never provided a bit of help to anybody in the region," Abizaid said. "All they do is destroy and kill and try to grab headlines," he said. "They believe by doing that they can gain time and eventually the coalition will leave. And when we leave there will be states vulnerable to their ideology."
He said the problem facing the U.S. and its allies in the region is that they must figure out "how to lower our profile while increasing the capacity of the regional states to resist this type of intimidation." He said Americans tend to look at the region through "soda straws" aimed at Iraq and Afghanistan as if the struggles in the two countries are somehow disconnected from broader issues in the region. Abizaid said the overall situation in the region is very encouraging. Much progress has been made in training security forces, strengthening economic systems and encouraging political progress. It is not just the American effort that counts, he said. Countries of the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are fighting the al Qaeda threat directly day after day.
"My view is that we need to help them help themselves," he said. "And, over the past years since 9-11, I think we've been very effective at doing that. "Unfortunately, it is a slow process. It is a very subtle battle between moderates and extremists that takes a very long time to play out," Abizaid added. "But with persistence and with imparting competence to local security forces, we can do more and more over time."
Americans must understand that this is not just a military problem, the general said. The military must go after the terrorist nodes because they are trying to attack America, he said. Military force is needed against insurgents in various countries -- both from coalition and local forces. Economic, diplomatic and political progress is just as important of military action, Abizaid said. U.S. government agencies must cooperate better to bring all aspects of national power to bear against the enemy. Abizaid said that the degree of cooperation among interagency task forces in the region has gotten better, but more needs to be done.
The government interagency process probably must reorganize. "Do we have to reorganize? Over time, we do," he said. "Is it difficult to reorganize in the middle of a war? Yes, but you have to do it." And it is not just the United States that must be involved in the region, he said. "It is also important to organize the international community as well," Abizaid said. "There is a lot of willingness on the part of foreign governments and nongovernmental agencies to assist in the effort."
Many nations are committed to the Iraq mission, and the number of nations committed to Afghanistan continues to grow, the general said. Following a visit to the Iraq Ministry of Defense, Abizaid said that he was impressed with the organization exhibited there. "They have come a long way in a short time," he said. "They are confident they will be able to take over security, but are not ready for us to leave yet. "I was also struck by the spirit of cooperation among the Iraqi army, the Iraqi police and the coalition," he added. "If this continues, I can see no terrorist group that can stand up to it."