BRIEF LIVES December 2003

Abizaid of Arabia

General John Abizaid has driven big changes in the American military. Now, as he commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, his ideas are being put to the test

This past July, a week after taking charge—as the chief of what the military calls Central Command—of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, the four-star Army general John Abizaid stepped over the line. He deliberately used the loaded word "guerrilla" to describe the escalating Iraqi resistance to U.S. occupation—something his civilian superiors had gone out of their way to avoid. Reporters pounced, even as soldiers quietly applauded Abizaid's candor. The Administration let it go—testimony to Abizaid's standing in the Pentagon, where he is said to be one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's favorite officers.

And not only Rumsfeld's. To a remarkable degree Abizaid is admired by his fellow officers, many of whom have said outright that he is uniquely suited to oversee the increasingly complex and bloody occupation of Iraq. Indeed, Abizaid's entire life seems to have prepared him to be the military proconsul of an Arab country in chaos. But now the question is whether he can step up from a career of triumphs in smaller arenas to take on the nation-building challenge of the decade.

Lieutenant Colonel Hank Keirsey (now retired) got a firsthand look at Abizaid's approach when the general commanded an airborne brigade in a war-games exercise at Fort Polk, Louisiana, back in 1995. "He was probably at his best in the chaos of the 'low-intensity' fight," Keirsey recalls, "the one that most usually confuses the modern American commander." In the phase of the exercise simulating a "high-intensity" war, against a conventional, tank-heavy force, Abizaid's performance was unspectacular, marred by gaps in the performance of his staff. But in the phase simulating a "low-intensity" war, against Third World insurgents, Abizaid's unit killed more guerrillas than any other Keirsey had ever seen. Discarding standard procedure ("He operated that brigade almost by ignoring his staff," Keirsey recalls), Abizaid improvised quick counterstrikes and repeatedly turned the tables on his would-be ambushers. This unconventional approach to warfare was not how the Army had taught Abizaid to fight. It was something he had largely taught himself.

John Abizaid graduated from West Point in 1973, ranked forty-second out of 944 in the class that just missed Vietnam. Above his yearbook photo is the cryptic caption "The 'Mad Arab' came from the deserts of the West to become a star-man"—a reference to Abizaid's Lebanese roots, to his California home town of Coleville, and to the star insignia he was entitled to wear for being in the top five percent of his class. It was at West Point that he first developed a reputation for fierce intelligence that persists today. "When people talk among themselves," says Michael Pasquarett, a retired colonel who teaches at the Army War College, "they'll say, 'Abizaid has a forty-pound brain.'" After graduation Abizaid spent three years in elite airborne and Ranger units, as a platoon and then a company commander; next he won an Olmsted scholarship—a military award for study abroad, given to only three to six young Army officers each year. Most officers would have chosen to study somewhere in Western Europe, where Army careers were then usually made. Abizaid decided to go to the University of Jordan, in Amman.

Olmsted scholars are supposed to study on their own, taking courses in a foreign language at a civilian institution, their uniforms in mothballs, their only Army contact the military attaché at the U.S. embassy. Abizaid headed into a situation that was exceptionally unsettled; after a year of intensive Arabic in the United States, he arrived in Amman in September of 1978, just ahead of the first explosion of modern extremist Islam—the Iranian revolution of 1979. Jordan, with its pro-American monarchy and its Palestinian majority, was thrown into turmoil by events in Iran; unrest and riots repeatedly shut down the university.

So Abizaid struck out on his own. He trained with the Jordanian army, visited neighboring Iraq (where Saddam Hussein was consolidating power), and camped out in the desert with Bedouins. "He wasn't just talking to well-to-do English-speaking people in Amman," one officer who knew Abizaid in Jordan says. "He was getting out to tribal areas and having dinner with sheikhs."

When Abizaid returned to the United States, in 1980, he completed an M.A. in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard, and then went back to his combat-infantry career. This was unusual. Officers who are labeled specialists in a given region usually end up at headquarters and embassies, pigeonholed as area experts. But except for a short tour as a UN observer in Lebanon, Abizaid spent the 1980s in one career-enhancing post after another: leading a Ranger company air-dropped into Grenada; serving in the Army Chief of Staff's research group; commanding the 3/325 Infantry, widely considered to be the best battalion in Europe.

Abizaid led that battalion into Iraq in 1991, in the chaos of Operation Provide Comfort. The mission was to protect and feed thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein's reprisals, but without restarting the Gulf War in their behalf. Prohibited from unleashing his superior firepower, Abizaid used everything from laborious negotiations to painfully loud rock music to keep the Iraqi forces back.

In a conventional career the next stop would have been the Army War College, where future generals are groomed. Instead Abizaid spent a year at Stanford's Hoover Institution, on a National Security Affairs fellowship, studying how to train troops for peacekeeping. In an article about the challenges of peacekeeping that he co-authored at the time (published in Special Warfare, the magazine of the Special Forces, and based on his meetings with military officials in Somalia and elsewhere), Abizaid wrote that "doctrinal voids exist at every level," and argued repeatedly that peacekeeping required a new kind of initiative that would have to rise up from the lowest ranks. In northern Iraq and in Bosnia peacekeepers were scattered in small units, isolated from one another and surrounded by feuding locals. "In each instance," Abizaid wrote, "superiors were far away, and quite junior leaders were required to defuse numerous potentially dangerous situations." He underlined his point by quoting Brigadier Michael Harbottle, an Englishman and a former chief of staff for UN forces deployed to Cyprus: "There is no doubt in my mind that the success of a peacekeeping operation depends more than anything else on the vigilance and mental alertness of the most junior soldier and his non-commissioned leader, for it is on their reaction and immediate response that the success of the operations rests."

Presented by

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. covers homeland-security policy, interagency coordination, and military reform for National Journal.

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