Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

John Abizaid

When General John Abizaid inherited the U.S. war in Iraq last year, some officers wanted him to boost the U.S. troop presence there to get a firmer grip on the violence racking the country. The new chief of the U.S. Central Command disagreed. "More U.S. troops will lead to less consent for our presence among the Iraqis," Abizaid told them. Only partly in jest, he berated as "colonialists" those who wanted more U.S. troops in Iraq.

But Abizaid, 53, is savvy enough to cross his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when he wants to. Although Rumsfeld refused last summer to call what was happening in post-Saddam Iraq a guerrilla war, Abizaid forthrightly referred to it as "a classical guerrilla-type campaign." Says a fellow commander about Abizaid: "He's smart enough not to lie."

Abizaid's brain is the fulcrum in the war on terrorism. He will need all his smarts to keep the U.S. military on track in Iraq. He oversees the world's toughest "neighborhood," spanning 25 countries from the Horn of Africa to the Himalayas. An Arabic speaker of Lebanese descent, he won the U.S. military's most difficult job last July. Although troops embrace Abizaid's muddy-boots mien, his soft-spoken demeanor gives him a cerebral air more common to the campus than to combat.

The roots of terrorism "certainly don't lend themselves easily to military solutions," Abizaid says over breakfast. He knows that winning the peace in Iraq will be far tougher—and take far longer—than winning the war. Patience, Abizaid thinks, is an ally of the enemy. "We think in terms of sound bites of 15 seconds," he says. "They think in terms of hundreds of years."