Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin to face different mission when he returns to Iraq as U.S. commander

Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, center, has a reputation of being reserved.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, center, has a reputation of being reserved. (Andrew Craft/fayetteville Observer Via Associated Press)
By Craig Whitlock
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The last time Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III was based in Iraq, he served as the No. 2 U.S. commander, overseeing day-to-day operations for 160,000 combat troops from the United States and 20 allied nations.

This month, Austin earned a promotion -- to go back to Iraq as the top U.S. commander there. When he starts his new job as a four-star general in early September, however, he will be in charge of a vastly smaller force and a very different mission.

By Aug. 31, the U.S. military is scheduled to have only 50,000 troops in Iraq, in keeping with a withdrawal timeline President Obama set shortly after he took office last year. For the first time since the 2003 invasion, none of the troops will be officially assigned to combat missions, as U.S. service members concentrate on training and assisting Iraqi security forces.

In addition, Austin may have a hard time figuring out which Iraqi leaders he should work with. Iraqis have been squabbling over the formation of a new government since they held elections on March 7, and it is unclear how or when the power vacuum will be filled.

"General Austin will certainly face a broader set of challenges than before," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, who served as a military historian in Iraq last year under Austin's predecessor as commander, Gen. Ray Odierno.

Austin, 56, has spent the past year at the Pentagon as director of the Joint Staff, making him the primary aide to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. military's top officer.

But Austin, a native of Thomasville, Ga., has spent much of his Army career outside of Washington. He also has logged three tours in war zones over the past decade, including as a commander with the 3rd Infantry Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and later as commander of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan.

From December 2006 until August 2009, he served as commander of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, a tenure that included his 15-month stint in Iraq as the No. 2 U.S. commander under Gen. David H. Petraeus.

Austin, whom the Senate confirmed on June 30 for his Iraq assignment, declined to be interviewed for this article. Unlike Petraeus, Odierno and other former U.S. commanders in Iraq, he avoids the limelight. He has a reputation of being reserved to the point of preparing talking points for informal meetings with his fellow officers, said military officials who have worked with him. Colleagues described him as a bright military tactician but also a traditional Army general: quiet, quick to deflect credit for successes and uncomfortable with some of the more political aspects of the job.

While Petraeus and Odierno had gone out of their way to forge relationships with national security analysts, lawmakers and think tanks, Austin remains mostly an unknown in Washington policy circles.

A paratrooper and West Point graduate, Austin won plaudits in 2008 for his performance during a pivotal moment in the war. After British troops left the southern city of Basra, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dispatched Iraqi security forces in March to take control. They proved ill-prepared, however, and nearly bungled the operation. Austin quickly intervened with U.S. troops and advisers, helping the Iraqis rescue the mission.

This time around in Iraq, Austin will be immersed more in politics than in combat. Under an accord signed with the Iraqi government, the United States has agreed to withdraw all forces by the end of 2011. Many analysts expect that the new government in Baghdad will seek to renegotiate the pact to allow the U.S. military to maintain a longer-term presence, but any talks will be delicate.

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