Today's date:
Fall 2008

Iran Is Not a Suicide State

Retired Gen. John Abizaid is the former commander of the US Central Command, where he was the lead general in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2007. He answered questions at a session of the Pacific Council in Los Angeles in July. NPQ participated in the discussion. Excerpts are adapted below.

NPQ | What is the best way to deal with the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran?

Gen. John Abizaid | The United States is now approaching the issue in the appropriate way by talking with Iran. We should talk to our enemies and tell them clearly what we expect. We did it all the time with the Soviet Union.

We need to make it very clear to the Iranians, the same way we made it clear to the Soviet Union and China, that their first use of nuclear weapons would result in the devastation of their nation.

I don’t believe Iran is a suicide state. Deterrence will work with Iran.

It is a country that has many different power centers that are competing. Despite what their crazy president says, I doubt seriously whether the Iranians are interested in starting a nuclear war.

The Israelis can take care of themselves up to a point. At that point, we and the Israelis are going to have to have a very clear conversation about what we will do if the Iranians develop and field a weapon. The relationship between the US and Israel over the next 20 years will have to go from a relationship of de-facto alliance to one of an unmistakable alliance.

The alternative to this view is war. Is a war with Iran one we want to fight at this particular time? The President of the US, whether (Barack) Obama or (John) McCain, would not be well served to take the military option off the table. But we have to always do our homework about where an attack will get us.

There are those who think we should just go after their nuclear weapons program and solve the problem in a couple of days. Yet, what about Iran’s ability to disrupt the Strait of Hormuz and stop the world oil supply? What about its ability to stir Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shia in the south of Iraq, the Shia in the east of Saudi Arabia, the Shia in the center of Afghanistan? For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The North Koreans have nuclear weapons. We’ve managed to not go to war with them. I believe that, with the help of the rest of the international community, we can steer the Iranians toward better behavior as well.

But, ultimately, you can’t bet on this Iranian government. I bet on the Iranian people. They are unhappy with this government. And they will find a way, just as they did back when they overthrew the Shah, to move on to something different. When that happens, it will be a whole different ballgame. The Iranians are a great people with a great cultural tradition.

For now, though, we have to understand that Iran is basically a weak nation just like North Korea. We shouldn’t impart to it some superhuman capability to launch weapons on warning against the US or our friends the Israelis.

We are the United States of America, the most powerful country on earth. Our moral leadership will win the day. I don’t understand why we should be running around so fearful of everybody.

NPQ | As a Middle East expert as well as a commander on the ground during these recent years of war, what are the key strategic issues you see in the future in that region?

Abizaid | There are four issues: Sunni extremists of the non-state, Osama bin Laden variety; Shiite radicalism associated with the Iranian nation state, as we’ve discussed; the festering wound of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; and the US dependence on Middle East energy supplies.

But let’s understand the context in which we must deal with these issues.

The US is a secondary player in the Middle East; the primary player is the people in the region. And they are engaged in what I have come to regard as “the first battle of globalization.” There are those who want to move toward modernization and follow the path of globalization, which has led to much success and prosperity elsewhere. Then there are those who want to globalize Osama bin Laden-style.

Also, we need to look beyond today’s headlines and realize that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, not Iraq and Afghanistan, are the key strategic problems in the region in the longer term. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state that is unstable. In Saudi Arabia, the fight between the ruling family and the clerical class has yet to play itself out. The clerical class’ theological frame is essentially Osama bin Laden’s ideology.

In the absence of government-provided education over the last 30 years in frontier zones like Waziristan on the Pakistan-Afghan border, Saudi-funded Wahhabi clerics moved in with mosques and schools to impart a radical view of Islam. That area is now where al-Qaida has moved. It is where the key threat is.

None of this can be solved tomorrow or before the presidential election. A process of civilizational change is going on in the Middle East that will continue for a long time to come.

In this context, the US has to learn what the British, the Russians and even the Israelis have learned: You can’t control the Middle East. For that reason, we need to move from direct to indirect influence in the region to achieve our objectives.

We have to understand that our culture is not going to be adopted by their culture. The only question is how we shape cultural outcomes that will allow people to live together in peace and prosperity so that we and our allies are not threatened by religious-inspired zealots.

We can’t, for example, bring Afghanistan into the 21st century. We can help them move forward in a way that allows it to cohere as a decentralized nation state that could be hugely profitable as a crossroads of the global economy. It connects China, Russia and India.

That means diplomacy as well as development and aid policies that support building  education systems in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan and civil institutions of accountability across the region. Helping people in the region help themselves not only means helping build counterterrorist capability, but demanding, to the extent we can, that governments become more accountable. We’re not talking democracy Swiss-style, but accountability to their own people. Military force alone will only drive more people into the hands of the extremists.

NPQ | What is your view of the debate between US presidential candidate Barack Obama and John McCain over a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and shifting some brigades to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent al-Qaida?

Abizaid | First of all, we’ve learned that if you squeeze al-Qaida in Iraq and Afghanistan, they pop up somewhere else. That is how this movement tends to operate. We have seen the weakening of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and then its move to Iraq: Now we’ve seen its weakening in Iraq but its growing presence in the Pakistani territories along the Afghan border and in the Horn of Africa. So, in terms of confronting al-Qaida, the problem we face today is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

It is not as if there is this roiling insurgency taking place in Afghanistan. Its stability depends on what happens in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, not the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. The Taliban and al-Qaida are not always in lockstep.

But the Taliban could not be successful if it were not for the resources and energy coming through the al-Qaida nodes in the northwest frontier zones of Pakistan, joined by a kind of Pashtun nationalism. The key to stabilizing Afghanistan is getting Pakistan to assert control over its own border region.

Beyond this, what was missing in the presidential debate was a strategic approach that bears in mind the regional context. The candidates ought to be debating strategy, not brigades. Such a strategy would grasp that you can’t separate the fight against Sunni extremists—which now focuses on Pakistan—containing the radical Shiite Iranian state, the need to finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need to reduce US reliance on Middle East oil. Stability means dealing with all these challenges in a comprehensive manner. And they cannot be met by the US alone, or by military force alone, but only by a condominium of nations that want peace and prosperity in the region.

In terms of US troops, they are busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, deploying in and out of those zones constantly. They could not be any busier. Shifting them is not easy. And, unless the US fully mobilizes all its reserves, there are simply no more troops. If we over-commit ourselves militarily and war breaks out somewhere else, then we are in a worse position. God forbid, what if war erupted with Iran? Where would we get the troops?

I would therefore encourage both candidates to focus on regaining strategic flexibility for America’s armed forces. We’ve got plenty of naval and air power. But our ground power is tapped out.

As for Iraq, it is likely to stabilize sooner than Afghanistan. Combat activity in Iraq has dropped off dramatically in the last four or five months. By the time of the US presidential transfer of power next January, the Iraqis will be closer to pulling it together. In many ways the Iraqis have moved beyond the American political debate. We can’t be in Iraq more than the Iraqis want us to be there.

NPQ | How stable and reliable is the Pakistani army?

Abizaid | When a military rules a country, as the Pakistani military has done, they tend not to take decisive action or risks because their accountability is to themselves instead of to their nation. The Pakistani military has thus gone against al-Qaida and the Taliban in the northwest territories to a certain extent, but then when they got a bloody nose they stopped. So, the present government is trying to come up with a long-term political solution for the northwest territories where, perhaps, they will no longer be a part of Pakistan 10 years from now.

The senior officers of the Pakistan armed forces were mostly educated in Ft. Benning, Georgia, and Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. They were classmates of ours in the US military. We know them. They know us. Then, for years, the US policy was not to talk to the Pakistanis [because they exploded a nuclear weapon—ed.]. So, the junior officers don’t know anything about us Americans. Some of them are sympathetic to the views and the ideas of the extremists. That is very worrisome.

We need to help our friends assert control over the armed forces so the armed forces can move against the insurgents in the frontier regions.

NPQ | Looking back, what mistakes has the US made in the Iraq war?

Abizaid | First, there was a universal transfer of cultural norms that took place in Washington. They thought that the invasion of Iraq was the liberation of France as opposed to going into a Middle Eastern state rife with ethnic divisions. In other words, an unrealistic liberation philosophy based on our cultural expectations from the experiences and outcome of World War II.

During the Cold War, there were many thousands of experts the military could call on to tell us the size of the underwear worn by a member of the Soviet Politburo. When I sought experts to advise the Central Command on the Middle East, there were less than 300. There was a huge cultural gap. So, we made some of the initial decisions in the war based on not understanding the culture.

Second, in the early stage of the insurgency, we clung to the belief that it was a good idea to transition early to American civilian control from American military control. This was a mistake. The military should have retained control until there was at least a modicum of stability.

Third, we had little understanding of the movements afoot in the Middle East that, if they ever become mainstream, would be our worst nightmare. I’ve learned now that we must do everything possible to mitigate the influence of the extremists—by using all the elements of national power, instead of just the overwhelming use of force.