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The embodiment of ‘surge’ in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

When Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno began his second tour of duty in Iraq late in 2006 as the war’s No. 2 commander, he was handed a battle plan that he and his staff quickly determined was out of touch with reality -- a set of precise timetables for handing over whole provinces to Iraqi security forces, regardless of their readiness.

“This race to victory based on a timeline did not pass the common-sense test,” said a top Odierno aide, citing the threat of widespread violence.

So Odierno made a fateful move: He challenged his boss, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., to change the strategy. It was an opening salvo in the behind-the-scenes battle over what became known as the “surge.”

And Odierno’s challenge, though initially spurned, goes a long way toward explaining why he was nominated last week to succeed Army Gen. David H. Petraeus as the overall commander in Iraq.

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The tall, intimidating artilleryman with a shaved head and a grave bearing was an early believer in what is now basic U.S. policy in Iraq. And he has proved he will stand up for it under fire.

Odierno’s commitment to the new approach is all the stronger because he embraces it with the fervor of a convert. During his first tour in Iraq, in 2003 and 2004, critics charged that his dedication to overwhelming force and firepower was the antithesis of counterinsurgency doctrine.

As a result, although Petraeus has become the face of the war, it is Odierno who more truly mirrors the American military’s experience in Iraq.

Another kind of training

Odierno began his first tour in 2003 as a two-star division commander.

Like much of the rest of the Army, he was trained to fight a conventional war, and was out of his element facing a guerrilla insurgency.

Then, again like the Army itself, Odierno remade himself into the kind of nimble, flexible commander required to fight an irregular war, as comfortable discussing economic development and tribal politics as planning a military offensive.

“I’m convinced he went through a complete metamorphosis,” said retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who is close to Odierno.

“He educated himself and became the very best operational commander we have in conducting irregular warfare.”

It is difficult to understate the skepticism within the military’s tightknit group of counterinsurgency experts that greeted Odierno’s assignment as the second-highest-ranking officer in Iraq with day-to-day responsibility for conducting the war.

Critics charged that his earlier reliance on force had inflamed the insurgency in the Sunni heartland north of Baghdad. It was seen as the prototype of what not to do.

Andrew Krepinevich, an influential military scholar and Pentagon consultant, said he became so concerned about Odierno’s new assignment that he raised it with Petraeus.

Over dinner at Ft. Leavenworth, Krepinevich, a retired Army officer, said he thought the Army’s best generals were leaving Iraq and those who remained were not up to the job.

“I got to Odierno and I said, ‘I don’t really understand why a guy who seemed to have so much trouble there the first time is going back in a key position,’ ” Krepinevich recalled. “Petraeus said to me, ‘Well, I know Ray and I think he learned a lot from that experience.’ ”

Krepinevich says now: “Petraeus was right, and I was wrong.”

Odierno arrived in Iraq for his first tour after nearly 30 years as an artillery officer, having spent his formative years in the Army’s “heavy” force -- big, mechanized divisions that were preparing for a conventional war with the Soviets.

A native of Rockaway, N.J., Odierno graduated from West Point in 1976, just as the Army was consciously shedding the irregular-warfare skills it had acquired in Vietnam, vowing never to fight that kind of conflict again.

And it was Odierno’s immersion in Cold War-era thinking that made all the more remarkable his metamorphosis into a skilled commander in an irregular war.

His own take

Odierno himself does not completely accept that narrative.

In an interview before he left Iraq in February, he acknowledged having made mistakes with the 4th Infantry Division.

But the mistakes he admitted to -- failing to reach out to local tribes, over-centralizing operations, overspending on big public works projects -- are not the ones his critics complained about, such as over-reliance on conventional weaponry and seemingly indiscriminate detention of military-aged men.

“I think where they get it a bit wrong is: Did we have to use some tough measures? Yes, because we were in an extremely tough area,” Odierno said. “In order to secure the population, we had to use some tougher measures than others had to use. It’s not that I was conventional in any way.”

He admits, though, that the Ray Odierno who returned to Iraq in 2006 was not the same man who went to Iraq in 2003. “I’ve learned. . . . I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “We’ve all learned.”

It was, at least in part, what he learned that prodded him to stand up to Casey.

He insists that Casey was receptive, but Odierno aides and other Pentagon officials said Casey was initially hostile and vetoed higher troop levels.

“It didn’t go over real popular upfront under Gen. Casey’s regime, because obviously he was very wedded to the plan,” said Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, Odierno’s chief of staff.

“People don’t like someone new coming in and saying, ‘Oh, by the way, we think differently.’ ”

Odierno also began nightly sessions with his closest senior staff to discuss ways to change the military’s mind-set.

“If we do not identify the threat appropriately, and hence apply the wrong strategy, the risk is that we become a greater driver of instability,” an internal document prepared for those discussions says.

Although Petraeus, not Odierno, has received much of the credit for Iraq’s shifting fortunes, Petraeus himself has publicly acknowledged Odierno’s role.

“Shortly after assuming command . . . he forthrightly requested additional forces; then he and his staff began developing an operational concept for their employment,” Petraeus said at the conclusion of Odierno’s tour in February. “His recommendations for what came to be known as the surge forces have since been proven correct.”

Anderson argues that Odierno’s embrace of counterinsurgency tactics during his second tour in Iraq will be remembered as the turning point in the war.

“This tour will, in my view, eradicate anything that was [said] before, or at least give people second thoughts about what kind of guy he really is,” Anderson said. “I believe he’ll be [remembered as] the architect -- the guy with the plan who turned this place around.”

Sitting in his spacious office near Odierno’s, Anderson paused and reconsidered: “If this all goes south again, I’m not sure he’ll be remembered for any of it.”

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com


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