General John Abizaid, commder of U.S. Central Command and the leader of U.S. military forces in the Middle East, has submitted plans to retire in March, according to the LA Times.
The paper describes General Abizaid as "the primary architect of U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan" since assuming the CENTCOM post in July 2003." That's a bit of an overstatement, since our strategy in the Middle East (or any region) is based on inputs from a number of officials, including the President, SecDef, and various component commanders. A more correct way of phrasing it would be "General Abizaid was the commander of U.S. military forces in the Middle East, and the principal advisor for strategy in that region."
But that doesn't fit the story's template, which goes something like this: with Rumsfeld's departure as Secretary of Defense, Abizaid is being pushed out, too, clearing the way for the "new" direction in Iraq. The Times reports that the military brass is split on General Abazaid's replacement and a revised strategy for military operations. Some generals apparently favor a more aggressive counter-insurgency operation (and troops increases), while others prefer Abizaid's approach of training Iraqis to handle security, and turning those responsibilities as soon as possible.
Selection of the CENTCOM's next commander will, obviously, hinge on the new course President Bush chooses in Iraq. If current speculation is any indication, I'd put my money on a surge in troop strength and heightened counter-insurgency operations, led by Lt Gen Peter Chiarelli, or (if I had my druthers) Lt Gen David Petraeus. We've written about General Petraeus in the past; he has served two tours in Iraq already, commanding the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion, and later, as the man in charge of rebuilding the Iraqi Army. By all indications, General Petraeus is a brillant man, and one of the true counter-insurgency experts in the U.S. military. General Chirarelli has similar credentials; he most recently served as director of day-to-day operations in Iraq.
But there's no guarantee that Mr. Bush will support the type of aggressive operations advocated by Generals Chiarelli and Petraeus. New Secretary of Defense Robert Gates--who will have a major say in the CENTCOM appointment--is a former member of the infamous Iraq Study Group, which advocates that so-called "broader" strategy, including includes talks with regional adversaries on Iraq, and an accelerated transfer of security operations to the Iraqis. To implement sort of strategy, Mr. Gates might support General George Casey, our top commander in Iraq, who is viewed as a member of the Abizaid camp.
We'll probably learn the name of General Abizaid's successor about the time that Mr. Bush announces his new approach for Iraq. The President has not shyed away from bold choices in the past, and given the current security situation, it's probably time for a similar move. Under that scenario, the "right" combination would probably be Petraeus at CENTCOM, Chiarelli back in Baghdad (as General Casey's replacement), and Casey as the next Army Chief of Staff. Casey is an able administrator, and sending him to Washington would get him out of the operational chain in Iraq. The chief's job is to organize, train and equip forces for combatant commanders, not run combat operations in Baghdad.
One final thought: General Abizaid's time at CENTCOM was up, no matter how you slice it. The Times notes that his term was set to expire in July, but in reality, CINCs rarely serve more than three. Running a unifed command is an all-consuming, exhausting job, particularly when the theater is 8,000 miles from your headquarters, and you're fighting two wars, to boot. General Abizaid gave it his all, served his country honorably, and we wish him a long and happy retirement.
Addendum: The choice for Abizaid's replacement will be an early indicator of how much clout Mr. Gates (and the Bush #41 alumni association) really have in setting policy for the rest of W's administration.