A Long, Hard Fight
A Cold War approach to beating radical Islamists
BAGHDAD--Standing in the thick mud before a giant Paladin howitzer, Capt. John Benoit, an artilleryman from the Louisiana National Guard, looked Gen. John Abizaid squarely in the eye and asked bluntly: How's the war going? Many soldiers, even those who give no quarter when fighting insurgents, tend to clam up in the presence of four-star brass. So when Abizaid, commander of all U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, finds a group like the Louisiana grunts willing to ask tough questions, he sticks around. And he doesn't just answer their questions but tries to share his view of the war in Iraq and what he sees as the larger struggle against Islamic extremism.
The insurgency, Abizaid acknowledged, has grown worse over the past year. There's no defensiveness on that point, though, as he segues into a discussion of why the insurgents--particularly the radical Islamists--must be confronted. "What we can't allow to happen is guys like Abu Musab Zarqawi to get started," Abizaid told Benoit and the soldiers of the 1-141 Field Artillery. "It's the same way that we turned our back when Hitler was getting going and Lenin was getting going. You just cannot turn your back on these types of people. You have to stand up and fight."
Abizaid's military command covers an area that stretches from Somalia through the Arabian peninsula, and into Iraq and on to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Throughout that mostly Islamic region, Abizaid argues, a critical struggle is going on between the forces of moderation, who are pushing for democratic reforms, and of extremism, who are pushing for the imposition of a rigid interpretation of Islamic law.
The White House uses the term "global war on terror." With the military's well-known fondness for acronyms, this has, inevitably, been reduced to GWOT, but Abizaid tends to cast the conflict slightly differently, as the "war on extremism" or the "long war." America has a chance to confront and stop an Islamic extremist movement akin to fascism or communism in its early stages, the general believes, before it metastasizes and dominates a significant chunk of the world. Before the United States attacked al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors, Afghanistan clearly fit that model; Iraq, on the other hand, did not become a magnet for Islamic jihadists until after the U.S. invasion. CIA Director Porter Goss, in congressional testimony last week, said that Islamic extremists now are "exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists. These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq," he predicted, "experienced in and focused on acts of urban terrorism."
Abizaid, who is of Lebanese descent, has deep experience in the Middle East. He was Gen. Tommy Franks's deputy during the initial invasion of Iraq. In the late 1970s, he served as a United Nations observer in Jordan, where he learned conversational Arabic. Though he frequently speaks to people in the region in Arabic, he rarely uses the language publicly. It was during his posting in Jordan, he says, that the foundation of his views on the Middle East was established, after watching the fall of the shah of Iran. "Being out here during the Iranian revolution," he says, "gave me a clearer idea of the emotional sorts of movements that can sweep the region very quickly and very powerfully."