U.S. Military Command in Iraq Shifts
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 3:34 PM
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military in Iraq is undergoing its biggest changeover in senior commanders since Gen. David Petraeus launched a new counterinsurgency strategy nearly a year ago.
The high-level shifts come at a particularly delicate stage in the war as U.S. troop levels begin to decline, Iraqis are handed more security responsibility and Petraeus seeks to ensure that the gains achieved over the past several months continue.
The leadership changes are likely to be disruptive, at least for a brief period, as the new set of commanders _ even those with Iraq experience _ adjust to rapidly changing conditions.
Even so, with the studied approach the Army and Marine Corps take to rotating units and commanders _ keeping the leaders informed daily of developments in Iraq, months in advance of their deployment _ it is unlikely that the switches will result in changes to Petraeus' strategy.
With the exception of Petraeus, senior commanders generally arrive and depart with their units, which means most of those now leaving or preparing to leave have been there for up to 15 months.
Topping the list of departures is Petraeus' second-in-command, Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who is due to leave in February when the 3rd Corps finishes its command tour and returns to Fort Hood, Texas. He will be replaced by Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of 18th Airborne Corps, from Fort Bragg, N.C.
"He's really done an amazing job with this counterinsurgency," said Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to Odierno. "He has it all at his fingertips, and there is no way that anyone could come in and immediately be functioning at that level."
But there comes a point where a commander becomes worn down and should be replaced, Kagan said. He foresees a "temporary degradation" in command effectiveness when Odierno leaves, tempered by the fact that Petraeus and his staff will remain to ensure a degree of continuity. Odierno is credited with establishing trust among Iraq military and political leaders and applying a flexible approach to shifting his forces around the country as conditions have changed.
Odierno said in an Associated Press interview last week that he sees no reason to back away from the plan President Bush announced in September to withdraw more than 21,000 U.S. troops by July 2008, even though the recent security gains are fragile and Iraqi force improvements are uneven.
"The trends that I've seen have continued now for about 23 weeks _ trends of decrease in attacks, decrease in IEDs (roadside bombs), decrease in civilian deaths and ethno-sectarian violence," Odierno said. "So I'm somewhat confident now that we'll be OK reducing down to 15 brigades."
Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army general who returned Tuesday from a week-long visit to Iraq, said in a telephone interview that he has no concern about the current turnover of commanders.
"The only thing I'd be worried about is, when does Petraeus leave?" McCaffrey said. "This guy is unusual. He's a national treasure. I sure hope we keep him there for another year because he may be, in the short run, not replaceable." McCaffrey also had high praise for Austin, who will replace Odierno.