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The Dissenter Who Changed the War
As the No. 2 Commander in Iraq, Raymond Odierno Challenged the Military Establishment, Pressing for More Troops and a Long-Term Strategy to Guide Them

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.

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.

Retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington, a veteran intelligence officer, concluded that the approach that many U.S. commanders used in the early days of the Iraq war effectively made them recruiters for the insurgency, and he was especially bothered by the actions of Odierno's division. "Some divisions are conducting operations with rigorous detention criteria, while some -- the 4th ID is the negative example -- are sweeping up large numbers of people and dumping them at the door of Abu Ghraib," Herrington wrote in a 2003 report to Brig. Gen. Barbara Fast, the top Army intelligence officer in Iraq.

Odierno was determined to operate differently on his second tour of duty, but he will not talk about how his transformation occurred. "I think everyone's changed," he said, brushing aside the question in one of a series of interviews in Iraq over the past two years. "We've all learned."

But one impetus, Odierno agreed, was the severe wounding of his son in August 2004. Lt. Anthony Odierno, then in the 1st Cavalry Division, had been leading a patrol near Baghdad's airport when a rocket-propelled grenade punched through the door of his Humvee, severing his left arm.

"It didn't affect me as a military officer, I mean that," Odierno said one evening in Baghdad much later. "It affected me as a person. I hold no grudges. My son and I talked a lot about this. He was doing what he wanted to do, and liked what he was doing."

But he said it did deepen his determination. "I was going to see this through -- I felt an obligation to see this through. That drives me, frankly. I feel an obligation to mothers and fathers. Maybe I understand it better because it happened to me."

The most important factor in his change in thinking, however, was probably his growing belief, as he prepared to redeploy to Iraq, that the United States was heading toward defeat.

'THE STRATEGY HAS GOT TO CHANGE' The General Fears That His Commanders' Plan Will Lead to Failure.

As the newly designated second in command in Iraq, Odierno was given a clear understanding of the scenario that Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his military superiors expected to play out: The United States would begin drawing down its forces in Iraq, cutting the number of combat troops in 2007 by as much as a third.

His responsibilities were equally clear: moving U.S. forces outside all major cities and establishing a handful of bigger bases along key roads leading into Iraq, deploying U.S. forces to the country's borders to limit outside influence, speeding up the transition to Iraqi security forces, and letting Iraqis handle fighting in the cities.

But the more the general and his team considered this plan, they less they liked it. They feared that it got ahead of the Iraqis' ability to do the job and thus, in keeping with the American pattern in Iraq since 2003, was likely to amount to one more rush to failure.

Odierno was "very nervous" about the course of U.S. strategy, he recalled. He decided to formally oppose any additional troop cuts. He wasn't even thinking about an increase, because, he said, "I didn't think I could get more."

He and a small group of advisers decided on a course almost the opposite of the plan given them. Instead of moving out of the cities, they would deploy more forces into them. Instead of consolidating their base structure, they would establish scores of smaller outposts. Nor would they withdraw to the borders. And most emphatically, they would slow, not accelerate, the transition to Iraqi forces.

Odierno realized that to take all those steps, he would need more troops -- and before long, it was clear to subordinates that Odierno was at odds with Casey, his commanding officer. "Casey fought it all the way," recalled Brig. Gen. Joe Anderson, then Odierno's chief of staff.

In an interview last year, Casey seemed puzzled when told that Odierno had grave doubts about the direction of the war back in late 2006. "Ray never came to me and said, 'Look, I think you've got to do something fundamentally different here,' " he said.

But to their subordinates, the disagreement was obvious. "We would backbrief one general and get one set of guidances, and then brief the other and get a different set," remembered a senior Army planner in Iraq.

In Washington, Keane had his own doubts about U.S. policy and was not shy about expressing them. More influential in retirement than most generals in active service, he allied himself with Odierno, advising him to ask for five new brigades. But when Odierno raised that number with Casey, his commander dismissed the notion. "He said, 'You can do it with two brigades,' " Odierno recalled. "I said, 'I don't know.' "

Plotting with Odierno, Keane bypassed the Pentagon and called the White House, which he had already been lobbying for a troop surge. "Just think about what's going to happen," he told national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. "You are not going to be effective in bringing down the violence with only two additional brigades, therefore you will call for an additional brigade three separate times, each time because we do not have sufficient troops. The media will be all over you for failing three more times. Meanwhile, the president is going to bite this bullet; he should only bite it once. He shouldn't bite it one time and then three more times."

Throughout that fall, Keane recalled, he had "a continuous dialogue" with Odierno. "He knows he needs more troops; he knows the strategy has got to change. His problem is General Casey."

In Baghdad, Odierno tasked his planners with considering how they would use the additional troops. "We have to secure the population, first thing," he told them. "We have to get back out into Baghdad."

They thought they really needed about eight brigades, but they knew that no more than five would be possible and that it would take months to get them all to Iraq.

The Joint Chiefs backed Casey. But after the Democratic victory in that November's congressional elections, Bush fired Rumsfeld, replacing him with former CIA director Robert M. Gates, who brought a skeptical view of how the Iraq war had been managed. And on Dec. 19, the day after Gates was sworn in, Bush acknowledged that "we're not winning, we're not losing" in Iraq -- a striking turnaround from his previously positive formulations.

Shortly thereafter, Gates and Pace, the Joint Chiefs head, left for Iraq. In Baghdad they met with Abizaid of Central Command, Casey and Odierno. The first two generals were at loggerheads with Odierno, the newer, younger and junior officer pushing hard for more troops. Gates listened without indicating which way he was leaning.

Gates later had breakfast with some young soldiers. "Never mind all the generals standing around," he began, according to a tape recording of the meeting, which reporters did not attend. He found far more agreement in the ranks on the need for more manpower.

On the long flight home to Washington in a C-17 military cargo jet, Gates, who declined to be interviewed for this article, disappeared into his mobile home in the plane's belly with Pace and a bottle of California cabernet sauvignon. A few days later, Odierno got the word: Gates wants you to have all five brigades.

"The surge really began the day that Gates visited," Odierno later concluded.

'DON'T TRY TO DO TOO MUCH' The Military Transforms Its Mind-Set Along With Its Tactics.

Once it was decided that the troop buildup would have five brigades, Odierno laid down some key principles to his planners and commanders.

First, the strategy wouldn't be just about Baghdad -- a decision influenced by heeding the experience of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's generals. American analysts, studying Hussein's deployment of Republican Guard troops in 2002 and 2003 west and south of the capital, had assumed that the move was made to reduce the ability of commanders to launch a coup. No, the Iraqi generals told them: The elite troops were kept there, rather than in Baghdad, because that was where the trouble was.

So while the first two American brigades of the surge went into the capital, the next three went mainly into areas around the city. Ultimately, the surge forces were divided about evenly between Baghdad and its outskirts.

The second principle, Odierno said: Don't make a move unless your presence is sustainable, and once you take an area, don't leave it uncovered. "Don't give up terrain," he ordered his commanders. "Don't try to do too much." This tactical patience was consistent with the Army's new counterinsurgency manual and the thinking of its author, who arrived in Baghdad in February as Odierno's commanding officer.

Odierno and Petraeus made an odd pair: Odierno, at 6 feet 5 inches and 245 pounds, is eight inches taller and 90 pounds heavier than Petraeus. Odierno's most noticeable physical trait is his bulk topped by his bald, bulletlike head. Petraeus is small and slightly buck-toothed. The nimble Petraeus is as much a diplomat as a soldier, while the hulking Odierno always seemed inclined to use firepower. Odierno is emotional, the type of general who will bear-hug a colonel having a hard day. Petraeus is cool to the point of being remote.

During their first tours, in 2003-2004, the two generals commanded divisions in adjacent areas -- Odierno with the 4th Infantry Division headquartered in Tikrit, and Petraeus with the 101st Airborne north of him in Mosul. But they had run their divisions very differently, with Odierno inclined to use the closed fist and Petraeus the open hand.

The guidance Odierno gave his subordinates during his second tour underscored just how much he had changed. His "key message" at one meeting, according to an internal Army summary, was that "planners must understand the environment and develop plans from an environmental perspective [instead of] an enemy situation perspective."

This was classic counterinsurgency thinking, almost the opposite of the strategy that Odierno and most of the Army had taken in Iraq in 2003-2004, when they emphasized a kill-and-capture approach.

"General Odierno has experienced an awakening," said Herrington, the retired intelligence officer who in 2003 wrote the report highly critical of the general. "I've now completely revised my impression of him."

The change in tactics and the increase in troops were not the only reasons that the security situation in Iraq would improve in the following months. By the time the surge began, the ethnic cleansing by Shiite militias had largely been completed. In addition, Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric, declared a cease-fire later in 2007. Most important, Petraeus that year decided to put large parts of the Sunni insurgency on the U.S. payroll, essentially paying them to stop fighting.

In a recent interview, Odierno expressed surprise that a book by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, published just as Odierno took command in Iraq, credited White House aides and others in Washington with developing the surge. From Odierno's perspective -- and that of many other senior officers in Iraq -- the new strategy had been more or less conceived and executed by himself in Baghdad, with some crucial coaching from Keane in Washington.

"We thought we needed it, and we asked for it and we got it," he said, referring to the strategy. "You know, General Petraeus and I think . . . I did it here, [and] he picked it up. That's how we see it. And so it's very interesting when people back there see it very differently."

Of course, Odierno said, ultimately Bush had to make the policy decision, and some White House aides encouraged that step. But, he continued, "they had nothing to do with developing" the way it was done. "Where to go, what [the soldiers] would do. I mean, I know I made all those decisions."

Odierno's focus is now the future -- and trying to influence the decisions of the new administration.

While he believes the surge has achieved some important tactical success, Odierno appeared uncertain of its long-term impact, specifically whether the improved security has created the breathing space for Iraqi leaders to foster reconciliation among the nation's warring factions -- the strategy's long-term political goal.

As 2008 proceeded, not only were some top Iraqi officials not seizing the opportunity, some were regressing, Odierno worried one day last November as he sat in the Green Zone office he had inherited from Petraeus.

"What we're finding is that as Iraq has become more secure, they've . . . moved backwards, in some cases, to their hard-line positions, whether it be a Kurdish position, an Arab position, a Sunni position, a Shi'a position, a Da'wa position, an ISCI position" -- the last two being the major Shiite parties.

Obama is likely to find Odierno and other generals arguing passionately that to come close to meeting his commitment to keeping U.S. troops safe, keeping Iraq edging toward stability and maintaining the pressure on extremists, he will need a relatively large force to remain in Iraq for may years.

When asked what sort of U.S. military presence he expected in Iraq around 2014 or 2015 -- well after Obama's first term -- Odierno said, "I would like to see a . . . force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000," with many troops training Iraqi forces and others conducting combat operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq and its allies.

One of the points he would stress to the new commander in chief, Odierno said, would be "the importance of us leaving with honor and justice. "

"For the military, he added, "it's extremely important because of all the sacrifice and time and, in fact, how we've all adjusted and adapted."

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