The New Man in Iraq

By Colin Kahl

Yesterday, General Ray Odierno took over the command of Multi-National Force-Iraq from General David Petraeus, who is leaving to become the head of Central Command. Odierno is one of the most controversial figures of the Iraq war, and he is taking over at a time of immense complexity.

In 2003 and 2004, Odierno was a two-star general in command of the 4th Infantry Division (4th ID). The division "owned" much of the "Sunni Triangle," including such insurgent hotbeds as Tikrit (Saddam Hussein's home town) and Samarra (the future site of the Golden Mosque bombing that kick-started Iraq's civil war in 2006). Odierno's troops were notorious for their heavy-handed tactics: They conducted indiscriminate sweeps of Sunni towns, arrested thousands of Sunni men, and were often accused of excessive force. The division's approach was devastatingly critiqued by Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Magazine, and Tom Ricks' 'Fiasco' described the division as the poster child for a failed "search-and-destroy" approach to counterinsurgency that focused on killing and capturing the enemy instead of protecting the population.

As Odierno prepared to return as the Corps commander in charge of day-to-day operations for all U.S. forces in late 2006, he made a concerted effort to alter this image. In pre-deployment interviews, he emphasized his understanding of counterinsurgency and the centrality of protecting the population in these operations. And, reflecting on a 2006 visit with Odierno, Petraeus noted, "There is no question at that time that he and his staff and subordinate leaders absolutely understood the principles that we had all come to accept as necessary for the conduct of counterinsurgency operations."

As Corps commander he was second in command to Petraeus during the surge, and many have described him as the unsung hero of that critical stage in the war. More broadly, the metamorphosis of Ray Odierno seemed to represent the evolution of the U.S. effort in Iraq as a whole from a failed, enemy-centered, overly forceful (or "kinetic") approach to counterinsurgency, to one that put the Iraqi population at the center of the equation. Odierno returned to the United States in early 2008, at the end of his year-and-a-half-long tour as Corps Commander. "I've learned. . . . I've learned a lot," Odierno acknowledged in April. "We've all learned."

As someone who has interviewed Odierno and had several other interactions with him, it is clear that his reputation has always been more complicated than the straightforward narrative described above. He was never quite as "hard" during the initial phase, or as "soft" during that latter stage, as the standard history holds. During his first tour, his units didn't only kick down doors, they also engaged in reconstruction efforts. And they were not uniquely "kinetic"--many of the same heavy-handed tactics the 4th ID employed were indicative of the actions by other U.S. units as well, such as the 82nd Airborne Division in Anbar province.

During his second Iraq tour in 2006-2008, there is no doubt that Odierno had internalized many of the lessons of classic counterinsurgency, including the need to protect the population and reconcile with adversaries. And he seemed genuinely reflective on the mistakes of his first tour. But he still focused very much on the enemy and the "kinetic" piece of counterinsurgency. Indeed, the efforts to protect the population in Baghdad proper were largely the domain of Petraeus and the 1st Calvary Division (which had responsibility for security in the capital as the headquarters of Multi-National Division-Baghdad). Odierno spent much more of his time focused on the Baghdad "belts," a strip of al-Qaeda in Iraq sanctuaries surrounding the capital. Odierno advocated standing up a new division headquarters (Multi-National Division-Center) manned by the 3rd Infantry Division, and pushed for approximately half of the surged troops to be sent to the belts to fight. And fight they did. The main emphasis in these areas was not to establish joint security stations and combat outposts to provide 24/7 population security, as U.S. troops did in Baghdad. The main mission was to disrupt and kill the enemy.

As Odierno's third tour begins, he takes command of all U.S. forces in Iraq at a critical time of transition. The security environment has improved, but the situation remains fragile. Consolidating recent security gains will require Odierno to work with Ambassador Ryan Crocker to push the Iraqis toward tough political compromises, including steps to integrate and employ the mostly Sunni citizen patrols known as the "Sons of Iraq," hold fair provincial and national elections, and resolve escalating tensions between Arabs and Kurds over disputed territories in northern Iraq. Odierno will have to manage the gradual decline of U.S. forces (and develop contingencies for further draw downs) and make the most of our diminishing influence over Iraqi leaders. In other words, Odierno will have to be a political general.

Is he up to the task? I think he is. Even if he is not the completely "transformed" individual he is sometimes described to be, that is partly because the initial view of him was a bit of a caricature. Most importantly, what Odierno brings to the job is a "feel" for the current situation in Iraq and a relationship with key Iraqi players. Leveraging this tactile sense and working these relationships may hold the key to consolidating progress in Iraq. In my recent discussions with Odierno about the way forward in Iraq, it was clear that he has a multi-layered understanding of the core political challenges that confront him, and is ready to take them on.

By |  September 17, 2008; 9:52 AM ET
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Fantastic and much needed analysis of Odierno.

Posted by: Jack | September 17, 2008 1:28 PM

Great post.

One thing I would be interested learning more about is GEN Jack Keane's (ret.) role in rehabilitating Odierno's image. Apparently he lobbied forcefully - and around official channels - to get him named as Petraeus' #2.

Posted by: IRR Soldier ... | September 17, 2008 2:28 PM


Posted by: Anonymous | September 25, 2008 3:19 PM


Posted by: corones | September 25, 2008 3:21 PM

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