Aamer Madhani / Chicago Tribune – 2005-04-15 23:41:11
BAGHDAD (April 14, 2005) — US force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to decrease significantly in the next year, but a long-term American presence in the embattled countries will be necessary for the foreseeable future, Gen. John Abizaid said Wednesday.
Abizaid, the head of US Central Command, said the US military presence will be scaled back if training and equipping of Afghan and Iraqi security forces continue at the current pace.
Abizaid’s comments on military operations in the two countries, made during a visit with the Chicago Tribune editorial board, were generally optimistic. Currently, about 142,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq and about 20,000 in Afghanistan.
But the four-star general cautioned that the insurgency in both countries is made up of fighters intent on destabilizing the region.
He said he believes that Al Qaeda is still seeking weapons of mass destruction and noted that the Taliban is still operating in border areas of Afghanistan. Abizaid also said that certain elements within the Syrian government seem intent on “stirring the pot” by giving sanctuary to insurgents fighting coalition and Iraqi forces.
“We can’t pull up the drawbridge and think we’re safe like we were on Sept. 10,” Abizaid said. “Those days are never coming back.”
Abizaid’s comments came as Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday called for a long-term security arrangement with the United States that could include permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan. Abizaid would not say whether he supports permanent bases but agreed that a long-term American presence is necessary.
Separately, the general said difficulties with recruiting and retaining troops have become a vexing issue for the US military. In March, the active Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard all fell significantly short of recruitment goals.
Abizaid said he is opposed to reinstituting a draft and argued that a professional, all-volunteer military will better serve the U.S. military’s long-term needs. In his travels through Afghanistan and Iraq, Abizaid said, he had met several reservists and Guard members who were on their second tour of duty. These were experienced soldiers who are going to be increasingly difficult to keep in the fold, Abizaid said.
“[Recruitment] is waning, but it is not as much of a problem as doomsayers say,” Abizaid said. “The real problem is you have a professional group of young men and women. . . . Our real challenge is to keep them on the team.”
While U.S. commanders in Iraq believe the bulk of the insurgency is made up of loyalists of the former regime, Abizaid said there is growing concern about al-Madhi Army fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. Last week, thousands of protesters marched on central Baghdad in a demonstration organized by Sadr associates and called for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
Sadr, who opposed the regime of Saddam Hussein but who also has fought the U.S. occupation, has long been a thorn in the side of U.S. forces. At one point, the Americans were seeking to arrest him for the slaying of a rival cleric. Iraqi officials have since said they won’t enforce the warrant.
In recent months, Sadr has joined Iraq’s fledgling political dialogue, but Abizaid said there are concerns that some Sadr loyalists may still be part of the insurgency.
“There is a group within the Sadr organization that doesn’t want to move forward,” Abizaid said
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