TAMPA, Fla.—The general who runs U.S. Central Command said he would happily accept all the new international coalition forces the Bush administration could muster for Iraq.
A number of influential members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have called for an urgent expansion of American forces in Iraq. Gen. John P. Abizaid, however, told Knight Ridder in an exclusive interview at his headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida that what's really needed is to "internationalize and Iraqi-ize" Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"The more international forces, the more consent it gains from Iraqis," Abizaid said, adding, "Right now there's 23,000 of them and I would like to see more. But the political construct to make that happen is not my problem."
Senior administration officials said some civilian officials in the Defense Department and Vice President Dick Cheney's office adamantly had opposed internationalizing the effort in Iraq from the very beginning.
Abizaid said it was a "false argument" to say more American troops were needed.
"Is there a military threat there that I have to defeat with more force? The answer is no. There's not a company of infantry of the United States Army that can be defeated by any threat that I've seen there since May 1."
He added: "It's not a matter of boots per square inch. It's really a matter of the right types of troops. Is the mix right? It's a matter of the right disposition of troops. It's the matter of the right use of troops. It's the matter of actionable intelligence."
In fact, the general said, "if we had actionable intelligence to the degree that my dreams say is possible we could have half the number of troops there that we currently have because it would allow them to precisely target the enemy, take him out, unravel the cells, unravel the very loose regional organizations and start to take them down."
But Abizaid also said there were problems with what he called "the ungoverned spaces" along Iraq's borders with Syria and Iran, areas he described as places where extremists could find sanctuary and operate.
Some military experts have suggested that's precisely why the American force needs to be increased and U.S. armored cavalry regiments sent to patrol and control those porous border areas.
"You know you can always make an argument for keeping our hands around this thing forever. I won't make that argument," Abizaid said.
Arab news media spread a belief that "this is an American occupation, that we're there to subjugate the people, that we are there to steal their oil. That's not true. But when you look at the figures—140,000 Americans and 23,000 international troops—you say this is, in fact, an American occupation. We don't need to add to that problem by throwing a couple of extra divisions in there," Abizaid said.
"Are there situations I can foresee where I would pick up the phone to the secretary (of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld) and say, `Now is the time'? Yeah. I can foresee that happening. But not yet."
The general said his commanders had concentrated American combat power in the areas that were the most trouble in postwar Iraq: Tikrit, Ramadi and the Baghdad area. He said that for every combat operation the Americans mounted they were simultaneously mounting 20 civil affairs actions.
"The (attacks) tend to take place against lines of communication, the soft and undefended targets, places where they think we are vulnerable," Abizaid said. "They don't attack our strength because they don't have the strength to attack our strength."
Abizaid said that if he were asked what types of troops he'd like to see foreign coalition partners send to Iraq, "I would like them to come with a lot of military police. I would like them to come with their nation's type of civil affairs (units) and I would like them to come with some paramilitary police."
The CentCom commander said he'd like to speed up the recruiting and training of Iraqis to serve as police, soldiers, border guards and civil defense militia, though he warned that moving too fast could result in "a bunch of ungovernable militias."
"What you want to do is build a security establishment that is responsible to the future civil government of Iraq," he said. "I think we ought to do it faster and when I go forward next week back to my favorite part of the world I will be taking my planning staff with me to examine that very question."
Abizaid means it when he says the Middle East is his favorite place. He's an Arabic speaker and scholar who was a university student in Jordan early in his career, and he enjoys his visits to Iraq and his talks with Iraqi citizens.
"You have a chance to make a civil society, a moderate society, in a part of the world that desperately needs it. So to me this is a worthy endeavor that will require some treasure, some blood unfortunately, a lot of toil, but it is all eminently doable if we just face the hard fact that it is going to be hard. I feel like I am hard enough for it, and I know my soldiers are hard enough for it. What they want to know is whether the American people are hard enough for it, and I know they are."
Abizaid said he grieved for American casualties on the battleground in Iraq and took it very personally because as commandant at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point he had trained many of the young officers who now are commanding platoons and companies in Iraq. His son and son-in-law are soldiers.
Abizaid also talked about the other war, an almost forgotten war, that continues in the huge region of his responsibility: Afghanistan.
He said the good news in the war on terrorism "is that they are operating against us in their region and we have put them on the defensive in their region." The bad news, he said, was if the terrorists had a sanctuary like they had in Afghanistan, "all they would be doing is planning the next Sept. 11."
Abizaid said the Afghan and Pakistani governments and armies were beginning to exert more control over their common borders, though al-Qaida had bought or created a sanctuary for itself in the ungoverned and, some say, ungovernable Waziristan area of Pakistan.
"That is tough, tough terrain to campaign in," Abizaid said. "It's complicated by tribal politics by narcotics trafficking by a whole series of other factors but we are going to find the Taliban. We are going to find Osama bin Laden. We are going to find Mullah Omar, provided the Afghan government achieves its goals and the Pakistan government achieves its goals."