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Friday, October 30, 2009

Relearning the Middle East - Nobody fears death. People fear torture

NPR's (National Public Radio) Terry Gross in conversation with Greg Jaffe (Washington Post's Pentagon correspondent) about Obama's options in Afghanistan. At some point the interview delves into the background of leading US military officials involved and reveals a few interesting episodes from the process through which the US general John Abizaid was relearning the land of his ancestors.

GROSS: I was really interested in your descriptions of General Abizaid, who, you know, helped lead the war in Iraq in its first stage, but didn't seem to agree with the philosophy that the Army was using.

Abizaid's great-grandfather was Lebanese. Abizaid speaks fluent Arabic. He spent time in the Middle East before the war in Iraq, and it sounds like he was very skeptical of the Iraq War from the start, yet he helped lead it. He was the commander of all military forces in the region, the position that Petraeus later took over. So would you explain why he was skeptical of the invasion from the start?

Mr. JAFFE: Yeah, I mean, he does spend a lot of time in the Middle East. Now, he doesn't grow up speaking Arabic. He actually teaches himself Arabic or goes to the Defense Language Institute and then spends two years in Jordan at the University of Amman as a student. They he spends one year in Lebanon, in southern Lebanon in the mid-'80s, watching the Israelis fight a very tough insurgency with Shiite extremists, and particularly Hezbollah, which is just beginning to emerge at that period.

I think he has a sort of deep appreciation for the culture, religion and the huge role those play in the Middle East in terms of determining the fate of kind of countries and how wars unfold. So I think he was deeply skeptical. I mean, he likes to say you can't control the Middle East. If you try, it'll end up controlling you.

So I think he was deeply skeptical of these sort of grand ambitions to change places, particularly Iraq, where he also has this experience at the end of the Gulf War, an experience that's very different from the rest of the United States Army and leads him to take very different lessons from the Gulf War than most of the U.S. Army.

GROSS: So how did Abizaid's Gulf War experience shape his thinking on Iraq?

Mr. JAFFE: Well, you know, most of the Army's - for the Gulf War is the 100-hour tank battle, you know, which is this tank-on-tank fight in which the U.S. Army, you know, obliterates the Iraqi army. Abizaid has a different experience. He misses the tank battle. He's stuck in Italy, much to his chagrin and disappointment for that, but is sent in in the latter days of the war -essentially after the war - to northern Iraq on a mission to protect the Kurds.

It quickly turns to he's also protecting the Iraqi army and the Iraqi army soldiers from the Kurds, and Iraqi soldiers are running to his checkpoint. And he has this - tells this very interesting story. In the latter days of his mission there, he's walking with a Kurdish Peshmerga, a Kurdish militia fighter, and they - the Kurds have caught a couple of Iraqi soldiers who were stragglers, and they grabbed these Iraqis and they torture them and then kill them. And Abizaid, in his very typical, John Abizaid way, says hey, if you're going to kill them, anyway, why do you bother to torture them? And the Peshmerga, the militia, Kurdish militia fighter, says well, nobody fears death. People fear torture. And we have to kill them and torture them and leave them in the middle of the road as an example to the other Iraqi soldiers not to mess with us anymore.

And at that point, I think Abizaid, who already sensed this, realizes that the Iraq War might be over for the U.S. Army. It might be over for the United States of America, but it's still continuing for the Iraqi people and continues throughout the '90s, until we invade the country again in 2003.

Source: NPR

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