Gen. David Petraeus cast such an enormous shadow the last two years that only the most fervent Army watcher could probably say who the No. 2 was during the critical “surge” period in Iraq.
For the record, he is Gen. Raymond Odierno, a mountain of a man who looks straight out of central casting for a butt-kickin’ Army general.
In the coming days, Odierno, 53, now bearing four stars on his uniform, takes over from Petraeus as the senior commander in Iraq at a time of momentous change. Petraeus, widely considered one of the Army’s brightest thinkers on irregular warfare, assumes command of U.S. Central Command and responsibility for military operations throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan after being in charge in Iraq for 19 months.
Odierno, who has spent much of the last seven years stationed at Fort Hood in central Texas, is an artilleryman by background with little on his resume to suggest that he has absorbed counterinsurgency doctrine, which seeks to blend combat operations with nationbuilding. Except that Odierno’s career evolution in recent years is strikingly parallel to the Army at large — criticized early in the war for an overreliance on combat, only to learn the painful lessons that defeating an insurgency requires more than a good offense.Is Odierno ready?
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Still, questions linger, as they did not for Petraeus, about how ready Odierno is for the strategic challenges of Iraq.
“Now that he is the No. 1, he’ll be challenged to manage the war and be in a position to make those critical judgments,” said Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University and a retired Army colonel. “I don’t think there is anything in his first or second tour that will help us understand whether he intellectually will be able to do the job. When that happens, I guess we’ll find out how good of a general Odierno actually is.”
There are a number of thorny issues staring at Odierno, including:
• Political agreements that might limit U.S. troops’ role.
• Keeping the Sunnis and the Mahdi militia from revolting.
• Professionalizing an ineffective police force.
• Continuing to hunt for terrorists.
• Reducing Iranian influence and weapons smuggling.
• Eventually withdrawing U.S. combat forces.
• Dealing with Iraqi elections.
• Answering to a new U.S. president in January.
“This next step is going to be really complicated,” said James Corum, a professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and a longtime author and expert on counterinsurgency strategies. Corum’s latest book, “Bad Strategies: How Great Democracies Fail in Counterinsurgency,” was published last month.
Corum, who has been highly critical of the military’s mistakes in the early years of the war, nevertheless sees the value in having Odierno return so soon.
“Whether they love him or not, over time he has built up these relationships with the Iraqis,” Corum said. “It’s almost certainly a better idea to have somebody who knows them, who can guide them and negotiate with them, than someone who isn’t experienced with them. In that part of the world, it’s the only way things get done.”War experience
Odierno, a New Jersey native, has experienced this war as a father, too. His son, Tony, a West Point graduate, had his arm severed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in the summer of 2004.
Then a lieutenant general, Odierno assumed command of III Corps at Fort Hood in 2006 and soon after left for Iraq as the deputy commander under Gen. George Casey Jr. As soon as he arrived in what was then a roiling, bloody near-civil war, he recognized that the strategy had to change. He was among the strongest and earliest proponents of the “surge,” reportedly bucking Casey in the process.
Within two months, Casey was moved and Petraeus was in charge. Adopting Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine and strategic objectives, Odierno figured out how to make the plan work.
“Petraeus deserves every bit of the credit he’s getting, but Odierno was the operational commander,” said Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, who served as Odierno’s chief of staff then. “The employment of those additional forces, the policies and procedures and the reconciliation efforts were all corps initiatives.”
Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a centrist think tank in New York, called Odierno’s promotion to lead the Iraq war an “excellent choice,” based on his familiarity with Iraq and his last tour. Biddle, however, agrees with most experts that Odierno and Petraeus should not receive all the credit; many of the reasons for the downturn in violence were due to Iraqi shifts.
Biddle, who met with Odierno in Iraq and again this summer, joked that the general “doesn’t look the part of the professorial theorist.”
“But one of the things that most impressed me was that he was open to discussion,” Biddle said. “You could sit down with him and lay out ideas, and he wouldn’t passively write them down or ignore them. He would discuss them with you, in ways that deepened everyone’s understanding of the issues and demonstrated real mental flexibility.
“He understood the logic of the counterinsurgency campaign very thoroughly, and he grasped the politics of Iraq,” Biddle continued. “I found him very different from the version of Odierno painted in (Thomas) Ricks’ book, for example.”
In a number of post-invasion accounts, including “Cobra II: by Michael Gordon and retired Marine Gen. Bernard Trainor, and “Fiasco” by Ricks, Odierno was sharply criticized as commander of the 4th Infantry Division for his tactics in the Tikrit-Samarra area of Iraq in 2003.
The 4th Infantry’s heavy use of artillery and mortars and its tactics of rounding up and imprisoning thousands of young men are believed by many critics to have helped fuel the Sunni insurgency, which made much of western and central Iraq exceptionally deadly for follow-on soldiers and Marines.
“Odierno’s brigades and battalions earned a reputation for being overly aggressive,” Ricks wrote in Fiasco. “Again and again, internal Army reports and commanders in interviews said that this unit . . . used ham-fisted approaches that may have appeared to pacify its area in the short term, but in the process alienated large parts of the population.”
Odierno and some of his former commanders have said they consider that an oversimplification. In previous interviews, Odierno has admitted to mistakes, but not the ones for which he has received the most blame.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram requested an interview with Odierno this summer while he was still at Fort Hood, but never received an answer.
“I think where they get it a bit wrong is: Did we have to use some tough measures? Yes, because we were in an extremely tough area,” he told The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “In order to secure the population, we had to use some tougher measures than others had to use. It’s not that I was conventional in any way.”
Anderson, who served as a brigade commander in the 101st Airborne Division under Petraeus in 2003, said Odierno would “probably tell you now he was a little more kinetic than he should have been” in 2003 and ‘04, using an Army term for direct combat operations.
“But they were in the Sunni Triangle, which was an area that had not been that focused on during the original combat operations,” he said. “The area where they were was an insurgent stronghold. He was balanced then, but fast forward to 2006, and he became extremely balanced,” referring to an equal reliance on helping the Iraqi economy.Petraeus’ right-hand man
Iraq, of course, is not the same place as when Odierno served as Petraeus’ right-hand man, even though that was only six months ago. It is an ever-evolving country.
That means that Odierno will likely have to rethink the United States’ posture and alignment in Iraq.
“The role for U.S. troops is increasingly changing from counterinsurgency war-fighting to peacekeeping and ceasefire enforcement,” Biddle said. “That’s a very different mission and warrants a substantial revision of the campaign plan. I think he is aware of that, and I have confidence he’ll assess the situation well.”
Adding to the complexity of Odierno’s job is that he is not the only one who has a say in that posture and alignment. In January, he will be reporting to a new president, defense secretary and national security adviser, and most closely, to Petraeus himself starting soon.
“Petraeus may be stepping down in Baghdad, but he’s not leaving the stage,” said Bacevich, who lost his son, Lt. Andrew Bacevich, to a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2007.
“Who will Odierno really report to? I’m not sure he’ll be able to circumvent his theater commander as Petraeus did, simply because Petraeus is now the theater commander. From Odierno’s view, that makes things more complicated.”