Abizaid Warns of 50-year U.S. Presence in Middle East

Retired Gen. John Abizaid, the former commander of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in a 27-country region that covers much of the Middle East, said Monday that it might take half a century before the U.S. military could leave the region.

"Over time, we will have to shift the burden of the military fight from our forces directly to regional forces, and we will have to play an indirect role, but we shouldn't assume for even a minute that in the next 25 to 50 years the American military might be able to come home, relax and take it easy, because the strategic situation in the region doesn't seem to show that as being possible," Abizaid said at the Joint Improvised Explosive Devices Defeat Organization technology outreach conference, where he was the keynote speaker.

The three-day conference brings together representatives from the defense industry, technology companies and academia in search of better strategies for the region that produces the greatest number of of U.S. troop casualities.

Abizaid outlined four strategic realities that would keep the United States in the region for a long time to come: "The rise of Sunni Islamic extremism as exemplified by [Osama] Bin Laden … the ideology of revolutionary Shia Iran … the corrosive effect of the Arab-Israeli conflict … [and] the requirement of the U.S. and the industrial world to keep the global economy going by exporting oil from the region."

Abizaid, who left his post at Central Command last March and now serves as a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, faulted the American effort in the Middle East for not matching its strong military work with other initiatives.

"We have failed to really organize ourselves to get the full benefit of our economic, diplomatic and political might, linked with our military capabilities, to deal with the problems in the region," he said.

Although he cautioned that "these problems won't go away tomorrow," Abizaid said he remained "tremendously optimistic" about the chances of U.S. success in the Middle East.

"We can stabilize Iraq. We can stabilize Afghanistan. We can maintain our power in the region in a way that contains Iranian ambitions. We can over time degrade the military capability of al Qaeda [so] that its ability to attract recruits, keep them in the field, and throw them against our interests will ultimately diminish."

At a time when tensions between the United States and Iran appear to be escalating, Abizaid said he believes Iran is capable of making a breakthrough in developing a nuclear weapon "in the next several years."

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