BALAD, Iraq -- Talking to soldiers leaving Iraq after a year of tough duty, General John Abizaid made a plea: Please don't leave the Army, too. It needs you and your combat experience in the global war on terror.
Abizaid, commander of US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa, made a point during a recent visit at Balad and other American outposts in Iraq, first to thank departing soldiers, then to urge them to stay in uniform.
"My point to them is really not out of concern that we're going to have an exodus as much as I want to keep the experience that has been gained," the general said.
The Pentagon says statistics thus far offer no hint that soldiers are leaving the services at higher-than-usual rates. Officials say long deployments and the casualties in Iraq -- at least 552 killed and 3,100 wounded so far -- have not deterred recruitment of new soldiers.
Abizaid, however, suggests the true impact on the Army has yet to be felt.
"What you don't know, though, is the effect of a long deployment in a combat zone on a young officer and a young noncommissioned officer and their family -- and the way they're looking to the future," Abizaid said in an interview.
The US Central Command, headed by Abizaid, has thousands of ground troops stationed indefinitely in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. Its biggest commitment by far, however, is to Iraq, where the Army is assuming it may have to maintain 100,000 troops for at least a few years.
"I just don't want to lose their experience and their ability and their understanding of these very difficult and tough circumstances," Abizaid said, "because I think the country is going to face more of these [wars] in the years ahead."
He said he has met some young soldiers who already have fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Some Marines who fought their way into Baghdad last April and then returned home last summer are about to return for a second tour as part of a wholesale switchout of combat forces in Iraq.
"You don't build that kind of operational experience with a professional group of people and then watch it walk out the door," Abizaid said.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Abizaid said that in his conversations with soldiers in the field, "I haven't detected from them what I would call the warning signs that they're going to leave in large numbers."
That is good, in Abizaid's view, because the future almost certainly will bring new fronts in the global war on terror. He describes that war as a battle between extremism and moderation, and part of his message to troops is that the US military will play a central role in this battle for many years.
"I think this battle of moderation versus extremism in this part of the world in particular is one that will continue well beyond the point where I'm retired," he said. "It's a long-term battle."
Abizaid, 52, took command of US Central Command on July 7, 2003, replacing now-retired General Tommy Franks, who planned and executed the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Two months before the Iraq invasion began, Abizaid arrived at Franks's forward headquarters in nearby Qatar as his top deputy. A native of Coleville, Calif., Abizaid graduated from West Point in 1973 and saw his first combat 10 years later in Grenada.
With almost 3 1/2 years likely remaining in his tenure at Central Command, Abizaid acknowledges he is thinking beyond Iraq, confident of eventual success there as the US military moves from the current period of postwar occupation to what he calls a partnership with the Iraqis.
Abizaid is looking at the broader challenge of defeating extremist forces of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and like-minded groups of terrorists.
"The enemy we face is an enemy that really has no borders, has no limits, and we have to be broad in our thinking," he said.