Gen. John Abizaid
‘We can walk away from this enemy, but they will not walk away from us,’ CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid told a JFK Jr. Forum audience, adding, ‘We will not fail if we all understand what we have to do.’ (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

America cannot walk away from Iraq without risking another world war. That warning was sounded at the Kennedy School forum Nov. 17 by Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), the man responsible for U.S. military strategy in the Middle East.

“We can walk away from this enemy, but they will not walk away from us,” Abizaid told the forum audience during a discussion titled “The Long War.”

“We have not failed yet and we will not fail if we all understand what we have to do. If we can stay together nothing can stop us and we can make the world a better place.”

Abizaid cited what he called the three greatest challenges facing the world – the Arab-Israeli conflict; the rise of extremist groups “with a dark vision of the future”; and, specifically, the dangers posed by “Shia revolutionary thought.”

“Where these things come together is in Iraq,” he said. “It’s absolutely not an easy thing to do,” Abizaid went on to say. “But the sacrifice that is necessary to stabilize Iraq must be sustained in order for the region itself to become more resilient against these three challenges.”

And while admitting that the recent upturn in sectarian violence in Iraq is disturbing, Abizaid said politicians cannot set arbitrary deadlines for the withdrawal of American troops.

“We all want to leave when we can, but the most important thing must be the stability of the region. We must stabilize Iraq. It’s vitally important to us,” he said.

Abizaid also admitted that the challenges in the Middle East extend far beyond Iraq’s borders, and it will require a concerted effort by several countries – including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – to meet them.

“We must defeat the extremism of bin Laden and his associated movement. It’s murderous. It’s ruthless. It’s very capable. It’s got strength as a network unlike any nonstate actor has ever seen before. We’ve got to defeat it,” he said.

“Think of it as an opportunity to confront fascism in 1920 if only we’d had the guts to do it then,” he continued. “I believe that if we don’t have guts enough to confront this ideology today, we will move toward World War III tomorrow.”

Abizaid’s appearance was cosponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The forum discussion was moderated by Carr Center Director Sarah Sewall.

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