General (Ret) John P. Abizaid retired after 34 years of service to the Nation as the longest-serving commander of United States Central Command (USCENTCOM). His combat and operational deployments are extensive, including Grenada, Lebanon, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Haiti, and Iraq. As the commander of USCENTCOM, General (Ret) Abizaid’s area of responsibility included the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and South Asia. Both a graduate of and later the 66th Commandant at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, General (Ret) Abizaid was also an Olmstead Scholar at the University of Jordan in Amman, and he holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University. From 2008-2013, General (Ret) Abizaid served as the Distinguished Chair of the Combating Terrorism Center, and today he currently serves as its Distinguished Chair Emeritus.
CTC: Given your extensive knowledge of the region and your long tenure leading U.S. Central Command during the 2000s, what is your take on where the United States stands today in “the long war?”
Abizaid: Unfortunately, we have lost ground over time. The scope of the ideological movement, the geographic dispersion of Islamic extremism, the number of terror attacks, the number of people swearing allegiance, and the ground they hold have all increased. Groups like the Islamic State have now taken on state-like forms and features that are unlike anything we’ve seen in the past. So on balance we are in a worse position strategically with regard to the growth of international terrorism, Islamic terrorism in particular, than we were after September 2001.
There are, however, some positive takeaways. We’ve protected the homeland for the most part and we’ve succeeded in preventing another major attack. It is, of course, impossible to protect against every kind of attack. As long as the terrorists have the ability to operate from sanctuary and safe havens abroad, they will continue to think about attacking the United States. It is important to understand that this is a global problem and not just an American problem.
CTC: What are some of your major concerns about the rise of Islamic extremism, and how do you think the United States can mitigate them?
Abizaid: I am very concerned about the growth of Sunni Islamic extremism in general. In particular, I’m concerned about the growth of the Islamic State, the continued existence of al-Qa`ida, and the growth of Islamic State offshoots and al-Qa`ida offshoots in various other places. We really need to pay attention to it. Somehow we need to come together in a way that just doesn’t throw military activity against the problem. We need a strategy that synchronizes international, diplomatic, informational, economic, military, and intelligence activity so that we have better results.
CTC: There is no shortage of opinion on the best ways and means to fight this war, but very little discussion regarding the ends. In your opinion, what should be our strategic end state in this conflict?
Abizaid: It is hard to say what the strategic end state would be because Sunni Islamic extremism is an idea, and it is hard to destroy an idea. It’s an ideology. Most agree that it is a perverted form of religious thinking, but many of its adherents believe it is the only way to move the religion forward in the 21st century. That’s what makes it so tough to deal with. The center of gravity therefore is how people think and what they accept as being good for them, their families, and their future. While it is very hard for us in the West to see that this is a future that people would want to embrace, there are way too many people embracing it today.
An ideal end state would be where terrorist attacks are decreased, where territory that is held by Islamic extremists is denied, that sanctuary is threatened, and most important of all, where their ideology is discredited. But we also need to understand that it will be very difficult for the United States to discredit someone else’s religious ideology. It takes the moderate people in the region to discourage this ideology from moving forward. The first line of resistance has got to be the Sunni political, religious, and military leaders in the region and throughout the Islamic world. There have been many Sunnis who have spoken out against extremism, many that have acted out against it, but I am extremely concerned that the movement continues to grow.
CTC: Your grandparents were from Lebanon. You studied as an Olmstead scholar in Jordan, and you served for almost four years as the commander of U.S. Central Command with a majority of that time spent downrange in Iraq. What role does sectarianism currently play in the Middle East and how will it impact the region’s future?
Abizaid: Well, sectarianism is the curse of the Middle East, whether it’s Sunni-Shi`a, Arab-Kurd, Turk-Kurd, or Alawites versus Sunnis. These various sectarian issues have dominated politics in the Levant and Mesopotamia in a way that creates fertile ground for extremism to grow. On one side, you have countries like Iran that espouse a form of Shi`a Islamic extremism, conducting operations and supporting terrorism around the world. On the other side you have Sunni extremists. This creates a dynamic for a broader war and more problems. When Muslims think that their governments cannot provide security and economic opportunities for them, they go inward to their tribes and to their sects. Sectarian problems are accelerating at an alarming rate.
CTC: The post-World War I borders in the Middle East are under obvious stress. Are they worth fighting to protect, or should we start seriously considering how best to reshape them moving forward?
Abizaid: I think we’re making a mistake by not acknowledging that the post-World War I, European-imposed borders of the Middle East are falling apart. They’re falling apart because of religious extremism and sectarian conflict because these countries lack institutional and bureaucratic structures that can provide security for their people.
I do not think you solve the problem by trying to reinforce the status quo that existed before September 11, 2001. And the status quo in my mind is not going to be restored easily. I think the international community and the leaders in the region have got to decide how best to reshape the Middle East and redraw the boundaries to establish stability and a more peaceful structure. Most people will clutch their heart, and do clutch their heart, every time I say something like that. But the truth of the matter is that we did it in Yugoslavia. It was the only way to move forward out of a spiral of violence that engulfed the Balkans for so long. Such is the case now in the Middle East. Nations that are trying to put the status quo back on the map are only going to prolong the conflict and stoke greater violence.
CTC: During your keynote speech at last year’s Senior Conference at the U.S. Military Academy, you emphasized the need to learn the lessons of history. Specifically, you mentioned that the Wehrmacht in World War II was often tactically superior to the Allies but strategically bankrupt in the end. Do you see parallels today in the current fight against the global jihadi movement?
Abizaid: In my opinion, the lessons of history are fairly clear when it comes to being tactically superior yet strategically inferior. We [the United States] are tactically superior. When I look around the battlefield, it is hard to see a single case of American military power being defeated at the tactical level. But that does not seem to stem the flow of the ideological movement of our enemies. They continue to grow and they continue to be dangerous, and we should ask ourselves the hardest question of all—how have our enemies managed to stand up to the greatest power on Earth? And the answer is that our enemies have endured because we don’t have our strategy right. And when I say that we don’t have our strategy right, I am not just talking about we as Americans. I’m talking about we, the international community. It is imperative that we apply a strategic framework around our approach to the defeat of this ideology that admits that it is a religious ideology. We need to isolate it, and over time, destroy it.
CTC: There has been much debate about the ways and means to go after the Islamic State. Some are in support of more direct U.S. involvement, to include American boots on the ground and a relaxation of the rules of engagement. Others insist that our regional partners, particularly our Sunni partners, must step up to lead the fight. Where do you stand?
Abizaid: I think everything needs to be on the table. Any strategy that starts from the premise that certain elements of power will not be used—whether they be military, diplomatic, or economic—will not work. We have to determine the most effective means we can employ against this enemy. We have explicitly made the point over and over again that we want minimal amounts of boots on the ground. I don’t think that that is the way we should be talking. We should be saying that we will use boots on the ground as necessary in order to achieve desired effects in desired places toward a broader strategic goal. And we haven’t been willing to do that.
When you set timelines for yourself that are unrealistic, when you refuse to allow the full range of your powers to be employed for practical purposes, you find yourself at a strategic dead end. All is not lost, however. We have many strategic ways out of this problem. We need to organize the international community, and to do so it will take a lot more effort than we’ve shown so far.
Look, I understand the concern about boots on the ground. I understand the fact that it often relates to fears of occupying territory in the Middle East. That is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about a raiding strategy where we destroy capability over time in a joint force, which is an integrated international air, ground, and naval effort. At the same time, we’re applying all the other elements of international and national power to limit the ability of the Islamic State to metastasize further.
CTC: It sounds like you are rather agnostic when it comes to who has to be in the lead in this fight. It sounds as though you are fine if it is either the United States or Sunni partners, as long as there is an effective strategy at work. Is that correct?
Abizaid: Actually, that’s probably not where I am right now. American leadership is essential to this process. Without American leadership, we’re not going to move in a direction that’s going to produce effective results. That doesn’t mean we only employ American assets, but it does mean there has to be American commitment to lead the effort and guarantee our partners that there will be some long lasting measures that take place. In other words, we must signal that we won’t just be there and leave after a takedown of Mosul or Raqqa. It doesn’t mean we have to occupy those places, but it does mean that we’ll have to use a lot more combat power than we have so far to achieve some sort of military result there.
CTC: In addressing the complex and interrelated security problems in Iraq and Syria, would you recommend prioritizing Iraq over Syria or vice versa?
Abizaid: I don’t think that this is a very useful way of framing the problem. We have a problem that is larger than just Iraq or Syria. It’s a Sunni extremist and Sunni sectarian activity in what used to be Iraq and what used to be Syria and that has spread across the middle of the Levant and Mesopotamia. As I said earlier, I do not believe we are capable of putting this all back together again. That strategy is bound to fail.
What we have to do is come up with an international way of recognizing that Sunni equities can be stable and safe from the various factions they feel threatened by, while still providing them a viable chance for economic development. We have to create an environment similar to what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina where Sunnis feel they aren’t being persecuted in their own country. It may be necessary to have both of those countries or certain parts of those entities declared autonomous regions of some sort. I’m not smart enough to have the exact answer myself. But I do think the international community has to think outside the box because the box is collapsing.
CTC: At Senior Conference you discussed the need to incorporate all elements of national power to win this fight. What element(s) of national power have we underutilized in “the long war.”
Abizaid: Economic power, diplomatic power, and informational and intelligence assets. Our overreliance on military power has created a dynamic that makes everything look like a nail. As a result, we just keep smashing everything with a hammer. This has led to a “whack-a-mole” sort of solution to problems that ultimately can’t be achieved solely by military action. Military action can gain time for political activity, but that has not happened yet. We have to figure out how to synchronize our military power and manage it in a way that makes sense for the 21st century and in an international setting.
CTC: Iran and Russia are both trying to assert more influence in the Middle East. What does this mean for U.S. policy, and what would you recommend the United States do to protect its interests in the region?
Abizaid: We need to think in terms of their strategic interests in the region. For example, Russia has had a long-standing interest in warm-water access to the Mediterranean for as long as it has been a great power. When we think of it this way, it is logical that Russia would seek to increase its power at the expense of weaker entities in order to achieve its long-standing goals. So what’s important here is to first understand what their objectives are, decide whether these are compatible with our interests, and identify where they may come in conflict. The key then is to try and shape a future that includes Iranian and Russian points of view as well as every other country that has an interest in stability in the region, but at the same time not surrender our own strategic interests for the sake of achieving a quick and feeble peace that is unsustainable.
CTC: What is your take on the Russian government getting more involved in the Syrian civil war?
Abizaid: It has strengthened Bashar al-Assad’s government, allowing it to move forward with more offensive action. But ultimately these are sectarian boundaries that will be hotly contested. And our experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East teaches us that as you encroach upon another sect’s particular land boundaries, resistance becomes more intense and sometimes impossible to overcome. So I’m not sure that the movement of Iran and Russia together has changed the status quo completely. But it does show that those two nations have to be taken into account as we move toward a better solution. To me this all comes back to what the region is going to look like. It hasn’t been made better with the involvement of the Iranians or the Russians, but if I had to prioritize anything it would be stopping the spread of Sunni Islamic extremism as our first priority. Once we have achieved that, then we can work to satisfy our other interests in the region.