WASHINGTON – Army Gen. John Abizaid, who has overseen the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since shortly after U.S. forces invaded Iraq three years ago, will stay on for another year, defense officials said Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently asked Abizaid to stay for a year beyond this summer, when he will have completed the normal three-year stint as commander, and he agreed, the officials said.
"General Abizaid is doing important work and has indicated that he wants to continue doing it. Secretary Rumsfeld appreciates that General Abizaid wants to continue, and there are no plans to replace him," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
Abizaid has won praise for his work, even as Rumsfeld and President Bush have come under fire from Democrats in Congress and other critics for the war. He travels frequently to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region that the Bush administration considers to be important allies in the war on terror.
A central feature of Abizaid's approach in Iraq has been forcing the Iraqis to take more responsibility for their security, arguing that the longer U.S. troops carry the heaviest load, the more dependent the Iraqis will become. Rumsfeld often makes the same argument, saying U.S. troops must put more Iraqis in the lead of the fight against the insurgents, even at the risk of seeing them falter or fail.
Asked in an interview last week whether he had foreseen the protracted nature of the insurgency there, Abizaid said, "People who think that ... institutions of a country like Iraq that was run by Saddam Hussein for 30 years were going to be fixed quickly or easily just were never correct, and it's clear that it takes a lot of time."
Abizaid is generally credited with coining the phrase "Long War" to describe a global struggle against Islamic extremism — a fight that he says includes not only prevailing in Iraq and Afghanistan but also countering ideological support for terrorism globally.
Nearly all of Abizaid's predecessors at Central Command served three-year tours, but there is no set tenure.
Abizaid took the job in July 2003, replacing Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who wrote and executed the Afghanistan and Iraq invasion plans. Around the time Franks left, the Iraqi insurgency began to take hold, marking an unexpected turning point in a conflict that the Bush administration had expected to last months, not years.
In January 2003, two months before the invasion, Rumsfeld plucked Abizaid from his post as director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon to make him a deputy commander of Central Command, under Franks.
The extension of Abizaid's tenure through summer 2007 would make him the longest-serving commander in the 23-year history of U.S. Central Command. The command evolved from a rapid-reaction force created in 1980 during the Carter administration in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
At his first Pentagon news conference after taking over Central Command, Abizaid contradicted Rumsfeld's statement of a few weeks earlier that there was no guerrilla war under way in Iraq. Abizaid told reporters that U.S. troops were facing a "classical guerrilla-type campaign" in that country.
Abizaid splits his time between Central Command's permanent headquarters in Tampa, Fla., and its forward headquarters in Qatar. His top field commander for Iraq since July 2004 has been Army Gen. George Casey, who agreed last fall to Rumsfeld's request that he remain in command for at least another year.
A native of Coleville, Calif., Abizaid speaks Arabic and earned a master's degree in Middle East studies at Harvard. He also studied at the University of Jordan in Amman.
After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in June 1973, he started his Army career with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he served as a rifle and scout platoon leader.