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The Generals' Insurgency Odierno's Surge

The Dissenter Who Changed the War

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 2009

Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno was an unlikely dissident, with little in his past to suggest that he would buck his superiors and push the U.S. military in radically new directions.

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A 1976 West Point graduate and veteran of the Persian Gulf War and the Kosovo campaign, Odierno had earned a reputation as the best of the Army's conventional thinkers -- intelligent and ambitious, but focused on using the tools in front of him rather than discovering new and unexpected ones. That image was only reinforced during his first tour in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

As commander of the 4th Infantry Division in the Sunni Triangle, Odierno led troops known for their sometimes heavy-handed tactics, kicking in doors and rounding up thousands of Iraqi "MAMs" (military-age males). He finished his tour believing the fight was going well. "I thought we had beaten this thing," he would later recall.

Sent back to Iraq in 2006 as second in command of U.S. forces, under orders to begin the withdrawal of American troops and shift fighting responsibilities to the Iraqis, Odierno found a situation that he recalled as "fairly desperate, frankly."

So that fall, he became the lone senior officer in the active-duty military to advocate a buildup of American troops in Iraq, a strategy rejected by the full chain of command above him, including Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the top commander in Iraq and Odierno's immediate superior.

Communicating almost daily by phone with retired Gen. Jack Keane, an influential former Army vice chief of staff and his most important ally in Washington, Odierno launched a guerrilla campaign for a change in direction in Iraq, conducting his own strategic review and bypassing his superiors to talk through Keane to White House staff members and key figures in the military. It would prove one of the most audacious moves of the Iraq war, and one that eventually reversed almost every tenet of U.S. strategy.

Just over two years ago, President George W. Bush announced that he was ordering a "surge" of U.S. forces. But that was only part of what amounted to a major change in the mission of American troops, in which many of the traditional methods employed by Odierno and other U.S. commanders in the early years of the war were discarded in favor of tactics based on the very different doctrine of counterinsurgency warfare.

Now, President Obama, an opponent of the war and later the surge, must deal with the consequences of the surge's success -- an Iraq that looks to be on the mend, with U.S. casualties so reduced that commanders talk about keeping tens of thousands of soldiers there for many years to come.

The most prominent advocates of maintaining that commitment are the two generals who implemented the surge and changed the direction of the war: Odierno and David H. Petraeus, who replaced Casey in 2007 as the top U.S. commander in Iraq and became the figure most identified with the new strategy. But if Petraeus, now the head of U.S. Central Command, was the public face of the troop buildup, he was only its adoptive parent. It was Odierno, since September the U.S. commander in Iraq, who was the surge's true father.

In arguing for an increase in U.S. forces in Iraq, Odierno went up against the collective powers at the top of the military establishment. As late as December 2006, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was privately telling his colleagues that he didn't see that 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq could do anything that 140,000 weren't doing. The month before, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, then head of Central Command, told a Senate hearing that he and every general he had asked opposed sending more U.S. forces to Iraq. "I do not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem," Abizaid emphasized.

This account of the military's internal struggle over the direction of the Iraq war is based on dozens of interviews with Odierno, Petraeus and other U.S. officials conducted in 2007 and 2008. In many cases, the interviews were embargoed for use until 2009.

Odierno's role has not been previously reported, and he remains a controversial figure because of his first tour in Iraq, when the tactics he employed violated many of the counterinsurgency principles he would later embrace.


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