John Abizaid to Retire Early
CENTCOM Commander John Abizaid is retiring early, clearing the path for new SECDEF Robert Gates to appoint a replacement.
Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has submitted plans to retire and will leave his post in March, a step likely to make way for a change in military strategy at a time the Bush administration is seeking a new plan for Iraq.
Abizaid has been the primary architect of U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan since becoming head of the U.S. Central Command more than three years ago. He has strenuously resisted calls to increase troop levels to quell rising violence in Baghdad, arguing it would increase Iraqi dependence on Americans. But a growing number of current and former officers have embraced the idea, some of whom have briefed President Bush as part of his monthlong review of Iraq policy, and the White House is believed to be considering the move. “If you’re going to change the strategy, in fairness to [Abizaid], let him go,” said a former senior Pentagon official who has worked closely with the general. “He’s given it all he’s got, in terms of personal sacrifice.”
Abizaid’s planned departure clears the way for new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to recommend his own commander, a decision current and former Defense officials say is nearly as important as the new administration strategy expected to be unveiled by Bush in January. These officials said Gates faces a clear choice between generals who have agreed with Abizaid’s push to quickly hand over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces and a small but increasingly influential coterie of officers backing a more aggressive U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign.
According to Defense officials, Abizaid submitted his retirement documents just over a month ago, shortly before Donald H. Rumsfeld was pushed out as Defense secretary. One recently retired Army general said Abizaid had wanted to retire earlier but that Rumsfeld blocked the move, insisting his war commanders stay in place.
It’s difficult to conceive of a commanding general for Middle East operations that would be better suited than Abizaid, who seemed to have the ideal resume for the job. He had years of experience in the theater, impressive academic credentials with a regional focus, is of Arab descent, and speaks the language fluently. Aside from simply “giving someone else a shot” and the fact that he has to be exhausted after three years in the job–and time in the theater as Tommy Franks’ deputy before that–it’s unlikely his successor will be an improvement.