Petraeus, Odierno Testify on Hill

Thursday, May 22, 2008 at 3:10 pm
Gen. David Petraeus (WDCpix)

Gen. David Petraeus (WDCpix)

For his fourth blockbuster appearance on Capitol Hill in 18 months, Gen. David Petraeus pulled off what might have been his most impressive feat yet: saying little of significance.

Petraeus joined his Iraq deputy, Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, at a sparsely attended Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this morning. He has been nominated to lead U.S. Central Command, the U.S. military’s regional command for the Mideast and South Asia, while Odierno has been tapped for commander of Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I), succeeding Petraeus as the U.S. military’s top general in Iraq. Odierno, despite potentially taking charge of the U.S.’s premiere war, said virtually nothing during the three-hour proceeding.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

In stark contrast to Petraeus’s last three trips to Congress — for his MNF-I nomination in January 2007 and his two Iraq status updates in September 2007 and April 2008 — the general was far from a political lightning rod. Not a single senator voted against the respected general’s last nomination, as is typically the case, and despite Petraeus’ impact on the highly political Iraq debate, there is no serious opposition to either his or Odierno’s impending promotions. “We owe Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Odierno a debt of gratitude,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the committee chairman and typically one of Petraeus’ sharper Democratic interlocutors.

Petraeus assumed command in Iraq in February 2007. His employment of counterinsurgency techniques — a blend of judiciously-applied force and cooptation meant to cleave the Iraqi people from the various insurgencies, militias and terrorist groups — is widely credited with bringing violence down from their late-2006 highs to levels seen in 2005. Violence has begun to rise again in Iraq during the first half of 2008, however — just as President George W. Bush, constrained by the hectic pace of deployments during the five-year-old war, has committed the military to withdrawing the Army brigades sent to Iraq for last year’s troop surge.

He signaled that such an approach will also be a feature of his prospective tenure at Central Command.

To be effective in the Middle East and South Asia, Petraeus said, he would “pursue comprehensive efforts in [the] region, aimed “not just at the symptoms of conflicts but also their underlying causes.” He called the region’s economic imbalances “a security issue.” And he promised renewed ties to U.S. partnerships with the Gulf states and traditional Arab partners like Egypt.

Rather little of the hearing was devoted to Afghanistan, despite 2007 being the most deadly year for U.S. troops in the six-plus year war there. Petraeus approved a recent 2,000-troop increase, and promised that he would travel to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region soon after taking the reins at Central Command to assess if additional troop increases are necessary. Without much elaboration, he agreed with a recent intelligence assessment stating that Al Qaeda’s safe haven in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan would most likely be the origin point for the next 9/11-style attack on the U.S.

Yet he also struck bellicose tones against Iran, calling its influence in the region “malign.” In one of the more heated moments of the hearing, Petraeus said Iran “continues to be a destabilizing force in the region… particularly harmful in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan.” A protester was removed for shouting down Petraeus, before the general went on to urge the U.S. to pursue diplomatic approaches to change Iran’s behavior in the region.

If Petraeus said little of note, Odierno said little at all.

Odierno, a complicated figure in counterinsurgency circles, offered practically no strategy for post-surge Iraq. In prepared testimony, he indicated broadly that his primary mission was to support the Iraqi government in its security and political missions, offering a level of vagueness that approaches truism. Answering questions from senators, Odierno said that the U.S. role in Iraq will “adjust over time” away from combat operations. When Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) asked Odierno to define an endstate for the U.S. million in Iraq, the general replied, “A self-reliant government that is stable, a government that will contribute inside of the regional context and the international context. Obviously, that means they need a professional security force… Obviously, a place that will not allow a safe haven for terrorists or extremists that threaten region… or the United States.”

His remarks indicated continuity with the approach taken by Petraeus. But he did not explain — nor was he asked — how he could implement a strategy similar to Petraeus’s without the same troop levels. Odierno did not explain how he would confront thorny questions of sectarianism and violence in places like Iraq’s volatile northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, nor whether he would continue Petraeus’ mixed coopt-and-confront strategy to Moqtada Sadr’s Shiite Mahdi Army.

Perhaps the largest news that emerged from the hearing was an announcement from Petraeus that he would be ready to announce a new drawdown in forces from Iraq — he did not specify the size — by the fall of 2008. Odierno said he would “execute” Petraeus’ decision. But when asked by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) what a timetable would be for a “responsible withdrawal” from Iraq, Odierno demurred.

“I don’t think i can give you an answer now,” he said. But he added that if the next president ordered him to come up with such a plan,  “I would undertake careful planning and we’d lay out a timeline.”

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