Saturday, September 02, 2006

A General's New Plan To Battle Radical Islam

Top commander Gen. Abizaid uses soldiers to build health clinics and dig wells. But is it enough?; Learning from Hezbollah
By Greg Jaffe
Wall Street Journal
September 2, 2006

CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti -- In the fall of 2002, the U.S. military set up a task force here on the Horn of Africa to kill any al Qaeda fighters seeking refuge in the region. The base was crawling with elite special-operations teams, and an unmanned Predator plane armed with Hellfire missiles sat ready on the runway.

Today, the base houses 1,800 troops whose mission is to build health clinics, wells and schools in areas where Islamic extremists are active. The idea is to ease some of the suffering that leaves the locals susceptible to the radicals' message, thus bolstering local governments, which will run the new facilities and get credit for the improvements.

Behind the shift is Gen. John Abizaid -- a 55-year-old of Lebanese descent and a fluent Arabic speaker -- who leads U.S. forces in the Middle East. In May, the four-star Army general visited 17 Navy Seabees, or engineers, at work designing a school. "Those 17 Seabees doing their mission out there achieve as much for us as a battalion of infantry on the ground looking for bad guys," the general said.

In an interview in Iraq later, he was even blunter about the limits of U.S. firepower. "Military power can gain us time...but that is about it," he said.

It's a striking comment from one of the country's most influential generals, whose views are increasingly being echoed by President Bush. As head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Abizaid oversees the U.S. military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Horn of Africa, Central Asia and the Mideast. He wields great military power, commanding more than 200,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, along with hundreds of warplanes and dozens of ships.

But his view of the region is increasingly shaped by the inability of all that firepower to prevail against a violent strain of Islam seeking to expand its foothold. "The best way to contain al Qaeda is to increase the capacity of the regional powers to deal with it themselves," he says.

Gen. Abizaid's approach is part of a broader rethinking within the Bush administration of how best to fight terrorism, driven in part by the failures of the past five years. One of its tenets is that change must take place gradually and be led by locals. The U.S. can provide help training and equipping indigenous counterterrorism forces to break up al Qaeda cells, Gen. Abizaid says. But bigger changes that address the root causes of terrorism in the region must take place over years, if not decades.

"We tend to be very impatient and want democracy to form tomorrow," he says. But "reform paced too quickly can have unintended consequences."

Gen. Abizaid says his approach calls for a "long war, because it will take a long time for reform to take place." President Bush has adopted the "long war" notion and uses it regularly in speeches.

The general's critics say such a strategy isn't bold enough. "The 'long war' is not a war to transform the Middle East -- it's a light hand and get out of there as fast as you can," says Thomas Donnelly, a conservative military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Others say helping autocratic regimes to build local support could simply entrench them and further stymie change.

The Horn of Africa effort, the centerpiece of Gen. Abizaid's long war strategy, has had to fend off questions from Washington about its value. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a pointed memo, asked what the U.S. was getting out of it. Gen. Abizaid says the resistance was less from Mr. Rumsfeld than from the "Pentagon bureaucracy," which he says didn't understand the mission's worth or the peril if it failed.

Gen Abizaid's unorthodox strategy is a product of his unusual career. Most Army officers who rose high in the 1980s and 1990s didn't stray far from basic muddy-boots soldiering. Gen. Abizaid has spent significant stretches of his career immersed in the Arab world. He served a year in Jordan early in his military career, and traveled widely. In the early 1980s he served with a United Nations mission in Lebanon, and after the 1991 Gulf War he was part of a mission to carve out a haven for the Kurds in northern Iraq. Along the way, he earned a Harvard degree in Middle Eastern studies.

In Lebanon, Gen. Abizaid says, he saw firsthand how Hezbollah used guerrilla violence, political activity and social aid to grow over the course of decades. "We Western-educated people tend to view war as first you fight then you talk," he says. "Here you are always talking and fighting." The general's counter strategy -- particularly in the Horn of Africa -- in some ways mimics Hezbollah's hybrid approach to war.

Implementing the "long war strategy," however, has proved fiendishly difficult for troops in the Horn of Africa. The idea is to send small teams into some of the world's most troubled lands to train local forces, gather information and build clinics and schools that extend the local government's influence. The military has long dispatched humanitarian aid, civil affairs teams and military trainers to places like Indonesia, the Philippines and North Africa to provide relief and bolster allies. But the Horn of Africa task force marks the first time that a large military command has been established solely to address the root causes of terrorism in a region.

"This is the most complex thing I have done in my military career," says Rear Adm. Richard Hunt, the commander of the mission. He has struggled mightily in the last nine months to get his troops access to countries in the region. Local leaders, even after they grant U.S. troops access and win projects, don't immediately abandon anti-American attitudes. Even when things are going well, progress is often so slow that it is imperceptible to the soldiers performing the mission.

Earlier this year, the Horn of Africa task force dispatched a six-man civil-affairs team to Yemen. A poor land with a history of Islamic extremism, Yemen is a key battleground in the war on terror. It is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden and about 106 Yemenis are among prisoners the U.S. holds at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The place is awash in arms. Officials at the U.S. embassy in its capital, Sana, worry that without an infusion of aid, Yemen could become a haven for al Qaeda operatives.

Three months into its tour, the U.S. team was having a hard time getting projects going. Just leaving Sana needed approval from a regional government and as many as five national ministries.

"I am stunned how hard it is. We want to help people and there is an obvious need, but we can't seem to get through the bureaucracy," says the team's senior noncommissioned officer, named Mike. The Army asked that full names not be used because the small team operates on its own in a dangerous place.

The team was eager to start projects in Marib, a restive province where, in 2002, a missile fired by a U.S. Predator drone incinerated six al Qaeda men as they rode across the desert in an SUV. Early in July, after almost two months of planning, the civil-affairs team thought it had finally scheduled a 10-day visit to the province.

The night before the visit, the regional governor canceled it. He said it was too long and he hadn't been briefed sufficiently on the team's movements. To appease him, the U.S. cut the trip to four days. Instead of looking into 10 or 11 potential projects, it would aim for five.

When the team entered the provincial capital, also called Marib, it found a maze of trash-strewn streets, dilapidated shops and mud-brick houses. Virtually every male on the street carried an AK-47 assault rifle on his shoulder. Escorting the team were a dozen Yemeni soldiers and Marib's education minister, who kept a snub-nosed .38-caliber pistol tucked in his belt. Asked why, he smiled and said it was for "bird hunting."

On the first day, the team met with the headmistress of a girls' school, clad head-to-toe in black so only her brown eyes peeked out. The team made plans to double the size of the school, which serves 1,000 students with 19 classrooms.

The next morning they headed deep into the desert on a paved road that after 90 minutes gave way to a rutted dirt trail. It finally ended at a forlorn village named al Faa. Its only school, built of uneven rocks scrounged from a nearby mountain, had no running water, electricity or desks. The town had run out of money to finish the roof.

Doug, a 44-year-old sergeant first class and engineer, sat on a rock with the school principal, who was armed with a pistol and a knife, and sketched out a proposal to finish the school. When they were done, the principal speculated on why the U.S. team had traveled so far. "You are building here and demolishing there," he said, referring to the fighting in Lebanon and Iraq. "You want us to forget the destruction."

Amer Blame, the mayor, adjusted the AK-47 slung over his shoulder and offered a different take. "America is intent on dominating the world, and this is a part of it. So why not come here?" he said. Eventually, the Marib minister of education ended the guessing. "Don't say anything bad or you won't get the project," he warned.

In its remaining days, the team visited a crumbling one-room health clinic at a desert crossroads that treats Bedouins. It needed to be replaced with a larger facility. When a yelling fight broke out among armed men over the where to put a new clinic, the team, worried that the men might begin shooting, sought refuge behind their armored car.

They received a heroes' welcome in a town called al Agaa, where all the males formed a receiving line and treated them to a lavish lunch. Al Agaa needed a new school, and the U.S. soldiers offered to finance one. Later they laid plans to dig a well for a village that was running out of water. The five projects, recently approved by the team's commanders in Djibouti, will cost about $600,000, paid for by the U.S. Central Command.

Team members in Yemen often wondered, despite their recent run of success in Marib, if their effort was too small to make a real difference in a region where the needs are huge and anti-American sentiment entrenched. "This could be a model," says Mike, the senior sergeant. "But it is not working right now."

Compared with other missions in the Horn of Africa, the Americans' experience in Yemen stands as a big success. At times, the command's meticulous plans, laid out over the course of months, have been undone by unexpected regional conflicts or mercurial local leaders.

Earlier this year the Horn of Africa mission's commander, Adm. Hunt, decided to focus on containing a radical Islamic government taking root in southern Somalia. U.S. policy didn't permit sending troops into Somalia, so Adm. Hunt tried seeding border areas with projects that would ease desperate local living conditions.

A goal was to extend the influence of the government of neighboring Ethiopia, which would own and operate the schools and clinics the team financed. Adm. Hunt sent 150 troops to Ethiopia in April.

Soon after they arrived, Ethiopia put tight limits on their movement. "No one could come to a compromise with the Ethiopians on how we should do our job," says Sgt. First Class Timothy Bowman. "So we just sat there. We did nothing."

In July, Ethiopia, citing worsening security, asked the Americans to leave for their own safety. They hadn't been able to start any major projects at all in three months. Recently, after a flood, a small team of engineers was allowed to return to build shelter for those displaced.

As the foray into Ethiopia shows, U.S. commanders have struggled to figure out how business is done in the Horn of Africa. "We don't have a lot of guys who know and understand the region well," Adm. Hunt says. In the 11 months through Thursday, his command spent only a third of the $10 million it had been allocated for aid projects in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. Some civil-affairs teams have been stuck at the base in Djibouti watching movies, playing bingo and eating diner-style food provided by civilian contractors to the military.

Adm. Hunt had better luck in May, when he traveled to Comoros, a three-island nation off East Africa that has seen 20 coups in three decades. He says he spent two hours with the country's new, Iranian-educated president on the eve of his inauguration discussing possible deployment of a six-soldier civil-affairs team. It's scheduled to arrive this month.

In the future, Gen. Abizaid envisions representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Border Control moving through parts of the Horn of Africa. State Department representatives might "teach locals ways to open their societies that don't threaten them," he says.

In many ways, Gen. Abizaid has been training for this type of warfare his whole life.

Gen. Abizaid was raised mostly by his widowed father, a mechanic in Coleville, Calif., and went on to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy. His 1973 yearbook offers a nod to his competitive streak, dubbing him "an Arabian Vince Lombardi."

His success continued when he earned a coveted spot as a company commander in one of the Army's elite Ranger units that parachuted into Grenada during the 1983 invasion. At one point, he commandeered a bulldozer and ordered one of his Rangers to drive it toward Cuban troops as he and the rest of his men advanced behind it. The event was highlighted in the 1986 Clint Eastwood movie "Heartbreak Ridge."

By the mid-1980s Gen. Abizaid, who had already learned Arabic and spent significant time in the Middle East, was pegged as "one of the Army's best and brightest," says retired Lt. Gen. Dan Christman. He deployed in 1991 to northern Iraq as part of a relief operation to coax thousands of hungry and freezing Kurds down from the mountains, where they had been driven by Saddam Hussein's troops following an uprising. Then Lt. Col. Abizaid was at the center of the effort to push back Iraqi forces, establish a Kurdish zone and broker a peace between their often-warring factions. "He knew from the beginning he need to get to know the two main Kurdish leaders. He studied them and learned what made them tick," says retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, who was the commander of the mission and went on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We all took our cues from John."

At a time when many in the Army saw peacekeeping ventures like the one in Iraq as a distraction from their combat duties, Gen. Abizaid saw such missions -- mixing shows of force, politics and humanitarian relief -- as a key part of the Army's future. In a 1993 article he wrote in an Army journal, the officer practically begged his military colleagues to take such responsibilities more seriously. "We must recognize that peacekeeping is no job for amateurs," he wrote. "It is dangerous stressful duty that requires highly disciplined, well educated soldiers who understand the nature of the peacekeeping beast."

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gen. Abizaid held top positions in the Pentagon, where he forged a close relationship with the often prickly Mr. Rumsfeld. In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war, Mr. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leaned hard on Gen. Abizaid to take on the Army Chief of Staff post, the top job in the Army. Mr. Rumsfeld wanted him to shake up the service, which the secretary thought was too complacent and out of step with his vision to transform the military.

Gen Abizaid repeatedly turned it down, telling colleagues that if he didn't get the Central Command position he would likely retire to California. "Abizaid disagreed with the technology-focused view of warfare that had taken hold in the Pentagon," says one friend who talked with him about the job. In the summer of 2003, he accepted the job as the head of Central Command.

Posted in Gen. Abizaid's Central Command headquarters in Qatar is some 1918 advice from famed British officer T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia: "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them." The saying, often cited by Gen. Abizaid, has become a mantra for commanders throughout the Central Command region.

Gen Abizaid's staff tracks everything from birth rates in places like Sudan to oil-pipeline deals to water consumption in the region. One of his staff officers, who has an advanced degree in Middle Eastern history, recently wrote a long paper for him on the British colonial experience in Iraq in the 1920s and '30s. The general's colleagues praise him for his ease with uncertainty and freewheeling debate.

In May, on a visit through Iraq, he was getting a briefing on security conditions in the country. An officer lamented that a significant share of Iraqis were telling opinion surveys it was honorable to attack U.S. forces. "You act like you're insulted or something," Gen. Abizaid said to the briefing officer.

As the officer looked on, surprised, the general told him why he shouldn't be: Iraqis also thought it honorable to attack the British when they occupied Iraq, and they felt the same way earlier about the Turks. The attitude was "a part of the battlefield," and it showed the need to turn the fight in Iraq over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible, he said.

Gen. Abizaid's influence is evident in Iraq, where the U.S. has shifted away from its initial focus of building a U.S.-style democracy in the heart of the Muslim world. Today the top priority for commanders is building Iraqi police and army forces that can take over the fight and shoring up crumbling infrastructure. On the political side, U.S. and Iraqi leaders are working to persuade Sunnis who've supported the insurgency to take part in the political process. They're also trying to reach an accommodation with radical Shiite elements. "In Iraq, we are willing to accept a less-than-perfect democracy. Stability and security are more important," says one U.S. Army counterinsurgency expert. "Instead of mission creep, we are seeing mission shrink."

As for the Horn of Africa, Gen. Abizaid, from his perch atop the Central Command, says it could take years and much patience to make significant progress. He figures it will also take a lot of help from other departments of the government, agencies that aren't geared to providing such overseas assistance.

"I just think we've got to reform our structures, our authorities and our thinking to deal with the way the world is moving," Gen. Abizaid says. "You just can't let these places deteriorate ... unless you are willing to accept what they bring you -- terrorism and crime."

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