As the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno bids an anxious goodbye

By Ernesto Londoño
Sunday, September 5, 2010; B01

BAGHDAD -- When Gen. Ray Odierno returned to Iraq at the end of 2006 to take the reins of ground forces during the darkest days of the war, his team boiled down the country's ills in a document it called the "Gap Chart."

The elaborate diagram, a product of many late nights of debate among Odierno and his confidantes, laid out the aspirations and needs of Iraqis, the government's inability to meet them and the militant groups that were exploiting the seam.

At the time, militias overran the Iraqi security forces. Sectarian battles divided once-mixed neighborhoods. The newly elected government was helpless.

The only way to avoid defeat, Odierno concluded, was for the U.S. military to fill the gap, quickly and decisively, becoming essentially a caretaker state.

Nearly four years later, President Obama has declared an end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and drawn down U.S. forces to just under 50,000 troops. Odierno, who became the top U.S. general in the war, has given up command in Baghdad. At the ceremony Wednesday marking the official transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn, he spoke of the inspiring milestones he had witnessed and praised the sacrifice and resiliency of the Iraqi people, who "stood up against tyranny, terrorism and extremism and decided to determine their own destiny as a people and as a democratic state."

But the general and his aides left Baghdad last week with plenty of milestones to go. Is the distance between Iraqi society's needs and the government's abilities still dangerously wide? As the U.S. military disengages from Iraq over the next year, who will fill that gap?

"It's going to be three to five years post-2011 before we really understand where Iraq is going and how successful we've actually been in pushing Iraq forward," Odierno said in an interview in Baghdad before he left.

Could it all fall apart?

"It could," he said.

Odierno, a bald, 6-foot-5 New Jersey native, has served longer in Iraq than any of his peers -- more than 4 1/2 years in all. He leaves behind a war not yet won, not yet lost and not yet over.

The gap has narrowed in one notable way: Iraq's security forces, trained, equipped and to a large extent designed by the U.S. military, are increasingly professional and competent.

But the country's political ruling class, made up largely of exiles catapulted into power after the 2003 invasion, remains locked in a fight for control, unable to form a government six months after parliamentary elections. Basic services remain poor and in some instances have deteriorated from just a few years ago. Insurgent groups launch attacks nearly every day, and reconciliation among ethnic and sectarian groups is elusive.

"This is not how we expected it to end," said Emma Sky, Odierno's longtime political adviser. "We desperately want Iraq to be okay."

Odierno arrived in Iraq during the 2003 invasion as the commander of the 4th Infantry Division. The unit was spread across three provinces in northern Iraq, which became the cradle of the Sunni insurgency. The general earned a boorish, trigger-happy reputation, synonymous with the troubled early years of the war.

American commanders at the time were confident that their training and hardware all but guaranteed victory, Odierno said. They didn't understand the culture and religious divisions in Iraq and misjudged them, he explained.

He admitted: "In 2003, I was afraid of the Arab culture."

After his first tour in Iraq, Odierno served as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When he returned to Iraq in 2006 to take the No. 2 military job, the country was on the verge of anarchy.

"We had Shiites and Sunnis fighting openly in the streets," he said. "It was an absolute mess."

The military's plan at the time was to turn over responsibility to the Iraqis and get out.

But Odierno's team came up with a different course that ultimately got support from the Bush White House: deploying 30,000 new troops, injecting them into the front lines of the sectarian war and brokering deals with militants willing to switch sides.

"Every night, I had late-night discussions about why," Odierno said, referring to the debates that led to this strategy, which became known as the surge. "Why is this happening?"

The debates also led to the creation of the first Gap Chart, which called Iraq a "failing state that must build."

Until it did, the U.S. military would shoulder more responsibility, pumping millions of dollars into reconstruction and economic development, and securing volatile areas one street at a time. The plan was a dramatic turnaround for a commander who had first become known in Iraq for excessive use of force.

The early months of the surge, which began in January 2007, were frightening. Violence soared. Attacks against U.S. troops reached unprecedented levels. Odierno could hardly hold a meeting without an aide stepping in with a note about the latest troops killed.

Toward the end of that summer, however, signs appeared that the strategy was working. And by the fall of 2008, when Odierno became the top commander, Iraq had turned into, in Gap Chart parlance, a "fragile state that must build."

Late that year, an emboldened Iraqi government signed a deal with the United States declaring that American troops would pull out of Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and out of the country entirely by the end of 2011.

In the spring of 2009, Odierno ordered his commanders to stop doing unilateral operations -- a challenging order for commanders who had come to think of Iraq as an assortment of "battlefields" that they "owned."

"It's like turning a ship," the general said. "It takes time."

But turned it has. The U.S. military has emptied its prisons in Iraq. It has largely gotten out of the reconstruction and development business. And it has deferred to local security forces, even though some U.S. soldiers cringe because they deem the Iraqi tactics ineffective or unwise.

U.S. troops will now focus almost exclusively on training and equipping Iraq's security forces.

This year's Gap Chart calls Iraq a "nascent democracy that must develop."

Last summer, Iraqis celebrated the departure of U.S. troops from their cities with impromptu street dances, flag-waving and fireworks. In March, they voted in droves to elect a new parliament.

Since then, the prevailing mood has soured. Iraqi lawmakers have begun collecting $10,000 monthly paychecks but show no sign of being close to a deal on who should get the premiership and other top government jobs. Power shortages led to angry demonstrations in recent weeks. Militants have demonstrated their staying power by launching attacks around the country, including recent large strikes in Baghdad and in southern cities that were among Iraq's most secure.

"The security situation is now in a way that they can move forward," Odierno said. But "to move forward, they need a new government."

During his final days in Iraq, Odierno and his aides watched the violence with trepidation and monitored political dealmaking for any sign of a breakthrough. The general worries that the United States could wash its hands of Iraq too quickly. He became alarmed earlier this year when U.S. lawmakers pushed back on the Obama administration's Iraq funding requests for next year.

A few months ago, Odierno watched "Charlie Wilson's War," a movie about America's proxy war against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The 2007 movie dramatizes the covert U.S. effort to arm the Afghan fighters who were battling the Russians -- and who eventually expelled them. That victory came at a cost: After the Russians retreated, U.S. lawmakers balked at requests to pour money into war-battered Afghanistan. Years later, the Taliban took control of the country.

The movie resonated with Odierno, Sky said, and he has begun quoting from it when he discusses the future of Iraq with his top aides.

"Iraq will be part of me for the rest of my life," Odierno said. "As I leave, I'm somewhat proud of what we've been able to accomplish. But it's not ended yet."

Ernesto Londoño covers Iraq and Afghanistan for The Washington Post.

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