WASHINGTON – Defeating Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia (search) and Pakistan (search) is a bigger strategic challenge for the United States than finishing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. commander in the region said Thursday.
It is not mainly a military mission, said Gen. John Abizaid (search), commander of U.S. Central Command.
"It is a battle of ideas as much as it is a military battle," he said.
The kind of assistance that Saudi Arabia needs, "is not the kind of help that the 82nd Airborne Division brings to the table," Abizaid said, alluding to the unit that was the first U.S. ground force to arrive in Saudi Arabia after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Coincidentally underscoring his point, Saudi authorities on Thursday reported that suspected terrorists killed at least five government security agents in a gun battle in Riyadh, the capital.
The Saudi government launched a campaign against Islamic militants and Al Qaeda cells after a homicide bombing of a housing compound in Riyadh last May that killed 26 people. The government has arrested hundreds of suspects. On Nov. 8, another homicide attack on a Riyadh housing compound killed 17 people.
The leader of Al Qaeda, Usama bin Laden (search), is a Saudi exile. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, some Americans questioned the wisdom of continuing support for the Saudi royal family, whose oil is a vital link in the American economic lifeline.
Abizaid, who is of Lebanese descent and an expert in Arabic affairs, said that while finishing the military's work in Iraq and Afghanistan is important, he is keeping his eye on the bigger picture.
"If I were to tell you that the two most immediate problems that we have to deal with right now are stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would also tell you that the two broadest strategic problems we have to deal with ... happen to be Pakistan and Saudi Arabia," he said.
Earlier this month he met with Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has survived two recent assassination attempts and earned high praise from U.S. officials for helping run down members of Al Qaeda. Adding to the importance of assuring Pakistan's stability is the fact that it possesses nuclear weapons.
"Both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are involved in their own fight against extremists that is crucial to the ability of their nations to maintain control over the internal situation," Abizaid said.
The four-star general gave a mostly upbeat overview of the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among his observations:
-- It may not be possible to fashion a legal framework for the American military presence in Iraq by July 1, when the United States is scheduled to hand over Iraq's sovereignty. Yet some sort of arrangement will be worked out, he predicted, on the basis of his assessment that Iraqi forces will not be ready by July to take sole responsibility for the country's security needs.
-- Abizaid believed at the outset of the war in March that once U.S. forces advanced to within a certain distance of Baghdad the Iraqi defenders would use chemical or biological weapons. He also thought "we would uncover" such weaponry once the major combat phase of the war ended. Nonetheless, he said, the issue of what weaponry Iraq had before the war is not his concern.
-- Civil war in Iraq is possible but unlikely. He believes the major ethnic and religious groups will ensure it doesn't happen. "There will be more people fighting to hold Iraq together than breaking it apart," he said.
-- Despite periodic reports that the Taliban are making a comeback in Afghanistan, "I believe the Taliban is in deep trouble," both as a military and political force, he said. U.S. forces will continue to conduct "limited military operations" along the Afghan border area with Pakistan, but Abizaid has no plans to put U.S. troops inside Pakistan against Pakistani wishes.
"The idea that we would work uncooperatively with the Pakistanis is not one that I'm entertaining."
Abizaid is responsible for U.S. military operations in a vast region from the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf to Central Asia and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia has managed for years to keep a lid on extremist violence, but Abizaid said he believes the Saudis now realize they must change.
Of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, he said, "They are going to be tough fights in both places."